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In the swing: eyes turn east as big guns head to Abu Dhabi

The first few tournaments of 2012 have lacked golf’s star names, writes Neil Cullen, but that’s all about to change.

Martin Kaymer celebrates last year's win at the  Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, his third win at the tournament in four years.
Martin Kaymer celebrates last year's win at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, his third win at the tournament in four years.
Image: Nousha Salimi/AP/Press Association Images

THE SHORT SOUTH AFRICAN run at the beginning of the European Tour has, maybe unsurprisingly, been dominated by South Africans. Seven of them populate the top 10 of the Race to Dubai at this point, although obviously that has to be taken with a pinch of salt — after all, we’ve only had three events of a possible 45 or so.

Branden Grace is the man who has led the charge. He’ll be a new name and a new face to some, but Grace is another top quality golfer to come off the long production line in South Africa.

To win two weeks in a row is a sign of real quality. This weekend he came through a playoff against Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, and any player who does that has certainly earned their crust.

In the last few years we’ve had South Africans Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Trevor Immelman win Majors, with Retief Goosen and Ernie Els not long before them. It would not be a surprise to see a few more South Africans added to the Major roll of honour over the coming years with the likes of Thomas Aiken and the aforementioned Grace leading the charge.

We often hear it said that Northern Ireland is the most successful golfing country per head of population, or similar sentiments along those lines. If that’s true, South Africa can’t be too far behind.

Big guns

We can’t deny, though, that the first few tournaments on Tour have lacked the big guns. This week, all that will change at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

The tournament was first played in 2006, and in its six years, has only produced three winners. American Chris DiMarco won the inaugural staging and since then Paul Casey has recorded two wins while Martin Kaymer has a hat-trick.

Understandably enough, Kaymer has been installed as joint-favourite alongside a man who has finished in the top five in each of the last three years. That’s Rory McIlroy. It’s tough enough to pick a winner from those two, let alone the entire field, and a strong field it is as was discussed last week. The winner will have to get through a field of 12 Major Champions and 102 European Tour winners.

Personally, I’m not going to look any further than Kaymer, but that’s not very brave or insighful, is it?

Tiger

As we know, Tiger Woods will be teeing it up in Abu Dhabi in favour of the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, a course on which he won the US Open in 2008 and a tournament which he has won six times no less.

It seems a bizarre decision for him to play a European Tour event for the first time over a PGA Tour event he has won six times. Maybe it has something to do with the strong financial lure of Abu Dhabi.

The event at Torrey Pines will be a lesser event without Woods, but it’s still a tournament with a very rich history played on a stunning golf course. Bubba Watson was the victor there last year in what was a great season for the left-hander. The tournament climax was full of drama and produced a shot that was voted in the top 10 of the PGA Tour shots of the year.

Phil Mickelson, who has won the event twice, was just one behind Watson and tried his best to hole-out with a wedge shot over a lake to force a playoff. He came very close…
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YouTube Credit: pgatour

It’s those kind of moments that make us want to watch the best players in the world and that is what we are going to get this weekend, both in Europe and in the States. We see a better quality of golf on display and the value of the tournament from a fan’s point of view increases because we know that the winner has to beat the best of the rest to win.

We are embarking on an early season run of such tournaments building up to two WGC events in February and March and then onwards to the US Masters and beyond. This is the point where things really do start to become interesting and exciting again.

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