Rory McIlroy embarks on a new year in golf, looking to leave behind arguably his most disappointing to date, when he tees off at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this week.
Last year was the first time the Northern-Irishman did not win in a calendar year since 2008 and he has now slipped to 11th in the world rankings, his lowest since 2010.
The four-time major champion is looking to right that wrong starting at an event he has a remarkable record in despite never winning; in nine appearances McIlroy has been top five in seven, top three in six and runner-up four times.Embed from Getty Images
Having played just 18 times in 2017 – his least amount of yearly appearances since still breaking through in 2007 – amidst a rib injury and making his last appearance at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October, McIlroy told Telegraph Sport that he hopes to play more times this year than he ever has before and may even reach 30 starts.
Despite the focus on McIlroy this week, he is not amongst the highest ranked trio in the field. World-number-one Dustin Johnson said he feels he can win eight, nine or 10 times in 2018 and began that with a win at the Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago. He will look to make it two wins in two for the year at Abu Dhabi Golf Club this week.Embed from Getty Images
Joining Johnson from the world’s top 10 are Justin Rose, who had a spectacular end to 2017 with 10 consecutive top 10s including three wins, and Henrik Stenson, who has a similarly frustrating record to McIlroy here with two runner-ups and one tied third finish, without getting over the line.
Branden Grace makes his second European Tour appearance in as many weeks after being seen off by Chris Paisley, also entering, at the BMW SA Open last weekend.
Further prominent names enter the field in two-time winner Paul Casey (2007 and 2009), Matt Kuchar, Tyrrell Hatton, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Ross Fisher and Bernd Wiesberger, all making their first appearances of 2018.
Race to Dubai winner and defending champion Tommy Fleetwood adds to that list. It is also his first appearance of the year, just as it was last year when a one-stroke victory over Johnson and Pablo Larrazábal sparked his push to the Race to Dubai title.Embed from Getty Images
There will be a return for the events mainstay, Martin Kaymer who has won here an unprecedented three times, including back-to-back in 2010 and 2011; he set the tournament record of 24-under-par in the latter of those two wins. For a five year period between 2007 and 2011 the trophy was shared between only Kaymer and Casey.
Other past winners Gary Stal (2016), Larrazábal (2014) and Jamie Donaldson (2013) return, meaning that only Rickie Fowler (2016), Robert Rock (2012) and Chris DiMarco (2006) are past winners not playing this year given tournament’s short history.
As always Abu Dhabi Golf Club hosts the event. The lengthy par 72 course measures 7,583 yards and for the first time last year featured additional bunkers and an elevated tee box on the par five 18th. Over-seeding gives a thickened rough to ensure staying on the short stuff is important; but at the same time the course needs to be attacked given its length.Embed from Getty Images
Renowned for his prevalent success in the dessert, McIlroy has won four times in the United Arab Emirates and would be delighted to kickstart 2018 with another and a maiden Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title.