Golf: Top two tee off new year at Abu Dhabi

By Allan Kelly

Woods plays down rivalry with McIlroy as Irishman declares himself rested and fresh.

McIlroy won his second major at the USPGA last year. Photo / AP
McIlroy won his second major at the USPGA last year. Photo / AP

World golf's new year gets into full swing in Abu Dhabi this week with the two top-ranking players - Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods - opening their accounts.

It is the second straight year that the Northern Irishman and the American have opted to get things going in the Gulf emirate, but the situation has evolved distinctly since 12 months ago.

Then, McIlroy was the fast-rising star of the game, while Woods was still mired in a slump brought on by injury and the sex scandal that wrecked his marriage.

Now, McIlroy is the undisputed world No 1 while Woods has proved that, although not back to his imperious best, he can still win tournaments and contend in the majors.

They are likely to be paired in the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.

But Woods, back to the world No 2 ranking two-and-a-quarter years after losing the top spot, is reluctant to become too embroiled in promoting a two-man show.

"Rory McIlroy had a wonderful year, and my hat is off to him. He deserved Player of the Year," the 37-year-old American said.

"Whether we develop a rivalry remains to be seen. Let's just let it play out and see where it takes us.

"We'll have to win big events and play each other down the stretch. That hasn't happened yet. We've only played each other at the Honda [tournament] down the stretch. We need a lot more of those types of battles, but in bigger events."

The biggest events this year will once again be the four majors, with The Masters at Augusta National (April 11-14), The US Open at Merion, Pennsylvania (June 13-16), the British Open at Muirfield, Scotland (July 18-21), and the USPGA at Oak Hill, New York state (August 8-11).

McIlroy, who won his second major at the USPGA last year, only has experience of playing at Augusta, while Woods knows all four courses well.

"I've had a nice break over Christmas and the New Year, but it's back to business now," the 23-year-old Ulsterman said.

"This is the sixth time I will have played the tournament, and I've always done pretty well here in the past.

"In the last four years, I have had two second-place finishes, a third and a fifth, so I know it's a golf course that really suits my game.

"Last year was obviously an amazing season for me and it's going to be tough to top it, but I feel refreshed and excited about the year ahead."

For English pair Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the challenge will once again be the same - to finally win a major title after years of failure in the big four, while Australian Adam Scott will be out to forget the late collapse he had at last year's British Open which allowed Ernie Els to win his fourth major.

With Phil Mickelson losing ground, the US challenge behind Woods is expected to come from a promising group of younger players comprising Brandt Snedeker, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson.

South African pair Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel have both already moved up the rankings, having won the last two European Tour events in their homeland and they can be expected to challenge again at the top level.

- AAP

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