ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates The most-talked about player on the planet will once again be Tiger Woods as he begins his season next week at Torrey Pines in San Diego.
But while Martin Kaymer tightened his grip on the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship with a third-round 66 to get to 18 under par, the player all his peers have been picking this week to make the next major breakthrough is Charl Schwartzel.
The 26-year-old South African is on the hottest streak of the year. Schwartzel is 61 under par for his four completed tournaments, having finished second, fourth, fourth and first last week when he successfully defended his Joburg Open title. And he's back on yet another leaderboard, tied for fourth in Abu Dhabi at 10 under par.
That means Schwartzel will have a close-up view Sunday when Kaymer will be chased all the way to the finishing line by Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who eagled the final hole for a 65 to be five shots adrift of his Ryder Cup teammate.
"If I shoot under 70 in the final round it will be difficult for Rory to catch me," Kaymer said. "But I'm not a machine."
Maybe not, but only just. He is the meanest front-runner since Woods in his prime, which is one reason why Kaymer will overtake Woods and become World No. 2 on Sunday night.
Schwartzel is chasing another high finish to push himself up the rankings from No. 23 into the top 20 for the first time. He has already won six times in Europe, racking up $10 million in prize money since becoming the third-youngest player to earn his tour card through Europe's qualifying school in 2002 (18 years, 81 days). He is the early pacesetter in the 2011 Race to Dubai, Europe's money list.
But a new challenge and a new frontier await Schwartzel this season in the States. He has taken up his PGA Tour playing card, and those in charge of putting up the players' names on leaderboards from Florida to California had better get used to spelling his name correctly. Remember, it's Charl, not Charles. That misconception used to irritate him when he was fighting to get noticed. But everyone in Europe knows him now.
"I am really excited about the coming year," Schwartzel said. "I have felt this coming. It's where I want to be."
He has qualified for all the majors and World Golf Championships, and he sounds confident about his chances in the U.S.
"When my game is on, I don't have to back off for anyone," Schwartzel said. "I can beat anyone. It's been pretty special playing the way I have. I don't have to think much when things are going well."
His best friend on tour is reigning British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen. They have been pushing each other to follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. There must be a mold in a factory somewhere in South Africa churning out softly spoken, polite, approachable, stellar golfers with beautifully rhythmical swings.
Oosthuizen's impressive front running at St. Andrews last July made Schwartzel realize that if his buddy can do that, so can he.
"For me, as a close friend that plays lots of golf with him, it spurs me on more than anything else," Schwartzel said. "It just makes it even more clear that it's possible. The sky's the limit, really, if you put your mind to it. But to be realistic, my goal is to see if I can get in the top 10 in the world this year. I feel I'm good enough."
But does he already have what it takes to win a major?
"Oh, definitely. Without a doubt."
Schwartzel was brought up on the farm his father, George, bought after a flirtation with South Africa's pro tour circuit in the 1970s, and Schwartzel still prefers the quiet life to the bright lights.
"I'm a quiet guy," he said. "Brought up on a farm with chickens and cattle. I'm a country boy. I can't be in a city for too long. I need my space."
But the more he appears on leaderboards, and the more time he spends with fans and the media, that shy country boy is being overtaken by a young man beginning to realize his dreams are coming true.
"In the beginning, doing lots more media was difficult," Schwartzel said. "But the more I do, the more comfortable it is getting."
Don't forget that his first language is Afrikaans.
"There is a price that comes with success," he said. "That is what I am working hard for. I don't mind having all the extra attention."
His manager, Chubby Chandler, believes Schwartzel will come out of himself even more this year.
"It will do him good to play regularly against Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods," Chandler said. "It will be a good test of where he is."
He's already seven shots ahead of Mickelson in Abu Dhabi. Michelson shot 39 on the back nine for a 72 to be three under par for the tournament.
Chandler's International Sports Management group also looks after Els, McIlroy, Oosthuizen and World No. 1 Lee Westwood. So Schwartzel has no problem finding advice or role models.
"Ernie is a legend," Schwartzel said. "If I can match what he has achieved, I will have done well. I dreamed of being World No. 1 and winning majors. I used to play with two balls as a kid and one was Nick Price when he was No. 1. I believe I can do it. It's not impossible."
Sunday will be another lesson in Schwartzel's education: he'll have a ringside seat for Kaymer versus McIlroy The Germanator versus Wee Mac.