The benefits of oil money is reflected in the quality of the field for this week's Abu Dhabi Championship, when Rory McIlroy – who has spent the past week sharpening up his game in the neighbouring emirate of Dubai – and world number one Jordan Spieth headline the European Tour's first leg of the so-called "Desert Swing". Rickie Fowler will be there, too.
Although Spieth – encouraged by appearance fees but also embracing the concept of being a global player by following up his appearance in Abu Dhabi by moving on to the Singapore Open next week – has already dusted off the winter cobwebs, when winning the Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour in Maui just over a week ago, this marks McIlroy’s first foray back out on tour. It has the potential to ignite their rivalry.
After an injury-hit season in 2015 in which he nevertheless won four times (but no Major title) and topped the European Tour order of merit, McIlroy has mapped out a different schedule to previous years up to the US Masters in April.
It includes two stops in the desert, in Abu Dhabi and the defence of his Dubai Desert Classic, before moving stateside to play a further five tournaments before playing in Augusta. The seven-tournament itinerary is more than McIlroy has traditionally played pre-Masters.
Indeed, McIlroy – who was forced to limit his tour schedule last season after injuring his ankle playing football with friends, an injury that saw him miss the defences of both his British Open and Bridgestone Invitational titles – is set to play three tournaments in a row next month when he heads stateside: he has committed to the Northern Trust Open at Riviera on February 18th-21st, has also committed to playing the following week’s Honda Classic and will finish off the stretch at the WGC-Cadillac championship at Trump Doral.
It is a new-look build-up as it marks McIlroy’s first appearance in the LA Open at Riviera, but it will be the eighth time he has played in the Honda where he has a mixed record: the Northern Irishman held off Tiger Woods to win in 2012, but withdrew citing a toothache the following year and then lost out in a playoff to Russell Henley in 2014.
The other tournaments stateside in McIlroy’s pre-Masters schedule will likely be the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and the WGC-Dell Matchplay (which has been moved forward a month in the calendar). It all means McIlroy will have packed more tournament play into his schedule than previous, although he will have a two-week break ahead of actually teeing off in his quest for the Masters, the only Major so far not on his CV.
McIlroy hasn’t been idle in advance of a return to action in this week’s Abu Dhabi Championship, a tournament in which he has finished runner-up in the past two years.
He spent the past week in Dubai, confirming on social media that he had done “some great work” using the Trackman dual radar system on the range.
Spieth doesn’t intend to follow Patrick Reed’s lead in also taking up PGA European Tour membership, but his appearance in Abu Dhabi – a first for him – will ignite a potential rivalry with McIlroy.
As Spieth acknowledged in a teleconference last week, McIlroy is a player very much on his radar. As he put it: “I’m sure there’s very few people working harder than he is to make this season his best season yet, which is scary. Hopefully I can prevent that to an extent.”
McIlroy is one of three Irish players in the field in Abu Dhabi, along with Michael Hoey and Darren Clarke.
Paul Dunne’s top-10 finish in the Jo’burg Open moved the Wicklow man up to 59th in the latest Race to Dubai rankings, but the tour rookie’s attention will switch stateside in the coming weeks as he takes up sponsor’s invites into the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines and the AT&T Pebble Beach pro-am.
Meanwhile, the Challenge Tour schedule for 2016 features the return of two events in Ireland: the Northern Ireland Open will be staged at Galgorm Castle on July 28th-31st and the Volopa Irish Challenge will take place at Mount Wolseley on September 8th-11th.