WHATEVER lies ahead in Scotland’s Ryder Cup year may be hard pressed to emulate the drama of the European Tour’s first full-field event of 2014.
It was one thing after another in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, starting with Sergio Garcia branding the rough “dangerous” then, 24 hours later, finding himself at the centre of an unsubstantiated cheating claim.
We then had Rory McIlroy being hit with a two-shot penalty in Saturday’s third round for a careless rules infringement yet, even after that, there was another dramatic twist to come.
Taking up where he’d left off when catapulting himself into contention with a swashbuckling 63 the day before, Open champion Phil Mickelson was heading for glory in the opening leg of the European Tour’s “Middle East Swing”.
Two behind Stirling’s Craig Lee heading out, the American had hit the front after just five holes. He had McIlroy, Pablo Larrazabal, George Coetzee and Raphael Cabrera-Bello snapping at his heels but led by one with six to play.
It just wouldn’t be a normal round for Mickelson without some drama and so it proved. Earlier, he’d been lucky not to stray into a bush with a wayward drive at the eighth. Leaving this correspondent tasting sand for the rest of the day, he produced a spectacular recovery on that occasion to make birdie.
The 13th, however, was to prove unlucky. In trouble again there, he tried to escape by playing a shot right-handed. It ended in a double-hit as the shot came back off a branch and cost him a triple-bogey 7.
The door had been opened. Larrazabal stepped in to secure his first triumph since the 2011 BMW International Open. The 30-year-old had made his move with two early birdies before adding three more around the turn. Playing partner McIlroy did likewise to stay in the hunt while Mickelson bounced back from his disaster with battling birdies at the 14th and 16th.
Playing the last, Larrazabal led by one from the two major winners. Safely on in two at the par-5, he nervously left his first putt short but kept his cool to hole the next one from four feet for birdie. With a closing 67, he finished on 274, 14-under.
McIlroy made a brave attempt with the eagle chip from the back edge that would have forced a play-off. Mickelson, though, never threatened the hole with the long putt to do likewise, having holed a monster there the previous day.
It left Larrazabal to carry on a theme of golfing Davids beating Goliaths here after Robert Rock pipped Tiger Woods in 2012 and Jamie Donaldson got the better of Justin Rose 12 months ago. “This means a lot to me, especially beating Phil and Rory, two of the three most talented guys in my era,” admitted the champion as he celebrated securing a winner’s cheque for just over £270,000.
“I was sitting at the prize ceremony and I said, ‘Pablo, what are you doing here?’ It’s Rory McIlroy on my left and then I shake hands with Phil Mickelson.”
Larrazabal, who finished four shots ahead of runner-up Colin Montgomerie when claiming his inaugural Tour title in 2008, attributed his latest triumph to the work he’s been doing with a mystery man.
“That person is the reason why I am here today,” he confessed. “I’m not going to say his name because he doesn’t want me to, but meeting him is the best thing that could happen to me.”
Only revealing the individual in question lives in El Part in Barcelona, he added: “If I tell you his secrets, someone else is going to benefit from them so I’m going to make sure that no-one knows him.”
While Larrazabal’s name is the latest one to be added to the trophy, both Mickelson and McIlroy left knowing either of them could easily have made a winning start to 2014.
“I just blocked a 3-wood and hit it in a terrible spot,” said Mickelson as he reflected on the moment when his title challenge came unstuck. “I tried to right hand it out and I double hit it. I don’t know if it hit the limb and it hit the club or it just popped up from the dirt and hit the club. It never crossed my mind that would happen. But I enjoy challenging myself to hit some shots. Sometimes they come off, and sometimes they don’t. This week I had a little bit of both.”
He will have world No 1 Tiger Woods for company in this week’s Farmers Insurance Open back home in San Diego, with his next Atlantic crossing unlikely to be until July, when he defends the Scottish Open and Open Championship titles back-to-back at Royal Aberdeen and Royal Liverpool. “It’s been a fun week,” added Mickelson. “Each day my game got better and better. I started off very poorly the first day and I progressed all the way through to where I struck the ball very well today. I’m excited about the foundation that I’ve built this week in my game. I still have some work to do, and I know where those areas are. My distance control with my irons wasn’t great, and I’ll go back and work on that.
“But I had a great week in these nice conditions and practice facilities to build a solid foundation for the rest of the year. What happened this week and fundamentals and foundation should help out for a good start to the year.”
Lee, who was unable to secure a single birdie after playing flawlessly for three days, finished joint tenth after a closing 77 for seven-under – seven shots behind Larrazabal.
More of this lot will do nicely in that countdown to Gleneagles.