ALL eyes will be on 2013’s indisputable star Henrik Stenson this weekend as the European Tour begins its Gulf Swing with the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The golf world will be fascinated to see whether the Swede can maintain the form that saw him win both the European and US tours last term in his first outing of the new season.
Stenson holds the championship course record, finished second in 2006 and 2008 and romped to a six-shot win in similar conditions at the Race to Dubai finale just a couple of months ago.
I’d make him clear favourite to prevail again this week, although he is not short of top quality competition.
Martin Kaymer has not won since 2012 but has a superb record at this tournament, winning it in 2008, 2010 and 2011, as well as finishing runner-up in 2009, so the German former US PGA champion is one to watch. Rory McIlroy has also been second twice in Abu Dhabi and is desperate to build on his success at the Australian Open late last year – the only win of a difficult campaign. Another star of 2013, Open champion Phil Mickelson, also looks to be a contender, as is in-form Dane Thomas Bjorn.
Players love the Gulf Swing, the three-tournament stint in the Middle East that includes competitions in Qatar and Dubai over the following fortnight. The food, hotels, courses and weather make for ideal golf conditions.
By contrast, British players can find it tough going in South Africa, where classy home favourite Louis Oosthuizen successfully defended his Volvo Champions title on Sunday.
With that in mind, it was an extremely encouraging performance from young Merseysider Tommy Fleetwood to finish tied for third, even if he will have been disappointed to see a three-shot lead disappear.
The 22-year-old made his breakthrough last year, winning the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, and was part of my Britain and Ireland team at the Seve Trophy. The question is whether he can climb to the next level this year, and I think he can. He hits the ball beautifully and, with the Ryder Cup taking place at the scene of his first European Tour win, he’d be a strong selection if he can stay in the hunt for qualification.
It was nice to see Padraig Harrington back in the top five, while Oosthuizen produced a fantastic finish of successive birdies to retain his title.
He has now started the last four seasons with a victory, so we all want to know what he’s eating at Christmas.