Martin Dempster: Desert double-header full of intrigue

Dustin Johnson will be a star attraction at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this week. Picture: Getty.
Dustin Johnson will be a star attraction at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this week. Picture: Getty.
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Get set for a delectable
 desert double that could, if recent history is anything to go by, provide some big pointers to a much-anticipated men’s major season getting underway in less than three months’ time.

The last two Masters winners, after all, slipped on the Green Jacket after warming up for Augusta National by tasting success in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, which adds intrigue to next week’s event at the Emirates Golf Club.

As will the fact it could be concluded under floodlights, which have been installed around the ninth and 18th greens on the Majlis Course to counter the possibility of daylight being a problem and the field having been increased to 132 players from 126.

But, before then, an equally fascinating four days lie ahead later this week as a mouthwatering line-up, which is headed by the world No 1, Dustin Johnson, does battle in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

The two events are being held back-to-back this year, with the Qatar Masters, which used to split them, moving to a February slot on the schedule and forming part two of the “Desert Swing” along with the NBO Oman Open, a new tournament on the calendar.

The change seems to make sense and, as always, the events in the United Arab Emirates have attracted stellar fields, with the Abu Dhabi one boasting Johnson as its star attraction for the second year 
in a row. Twelve months ago, the American finished joint second, a shot behind winner Tommy Fleetwood, and it would be no surprise whatsoever if Johnson went one better on this occasion.

For starters, at more than 7,500 yards it’s a track that suits his game and, of course, the 33-year-old has already hit the ground running in 2018, winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii by eight shots just over a week ago. More of the same and Johnson could easily join compatriots Chris DiMarco (2006) and Rickie Fowler (2016) in claiming victory in front of the iconic Falcon Clubhouse on Sunday.

This week is not just about the game’s top-ranked player, though. Far from it. Rory McIlroy is making his return following a self-enforced three-month break, the aim of which was to allow him to fully recover from the rib injury he was plagued by last season and also get himself properly prepared for the 2018 campaign.

The Northern Irishman has slipped out of the world’s top ten during his absence but aims to be back on top of the pile by the end of the year. Winning this event for the first time or landing his third Omega Dubai Desert Classic title would be the perfect start in that particular quest and, helped by a good start, you really do sense this could be one of those seasons to remember for McIlroy.

Justin Rose is also in this week’s field – the Olympic champion is joined by both the silver and bronze medallists from Rio two years ago, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar – and he, of course, will be looking to take up where he left off when landing three impressive wins at the end of last year.

Then there’s Paul Casey. Having rejoined the European Tour for this season, the Englishman is playing in his first regular event on the circuit for more than two years and it just happens to be in a tournament he won in both 2007 and 2009, so don’t be surprised to see him in the mix this weekend.

Of those named, McIlroy and Stenson are also playing in Dubai, where Sergio Garcia will make his first appearance in 2018 in a field that also includes world No 16 
Pat Perez, who has been signed up by the event’s organisers due to Tiger Woods opting to stay in the US to continue his comeback in the Farmers Insurance Open at 
Torrey Pines.

In short, there can be no denying that these are two tasty treats early in the year and, though definitely not defining, Johnson, McIlroy, Rose, Garcia, Kuchar and Stenson could all lay down markers in the UAE that could well prove significant later in the season.

Just ask Fleetwood about what coming out on top in a world-class field can do for someone’s confidence. After all, the Englishman never looked back after his title triumph in Abu Dhabi a year ago and went on to become a deserved Race to Dubai winner.