Two tournaments are in the books, but for all intents and purposes the 2011 season begins this week in the Persian Gulf, home of the Euro Tour's Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell and Phil Mickelson headline a field that includes six of the top 10 and 16 of the world's top 30 players, and all four of the 2010 major winners.
The HSBC, which commences the Euro circuit's four-week Desert Swing, will also feature Paul Casey, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose. Most famous for its not-so-flattering depiction in "Sex and the City 2" (or so I hear), the UAE's capital city will have the best field in golf until the 2011 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Feb. 23-27.
This will be the first time in Abu Dhabi for both Mickelson and HSBC, the emirate's first-year title sponsor but not a new sponsor to pro golf. Mickelson's last start came at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai in November. He tied for 41st place.
How will Phil play this week? How will Phil play this year? As always, it's anybody's guess, especially with the news last year that he's suffering from psoriatic arthritis, a chronic condition.
The last time we saw Westwood, 37, he was validating his newly won No. 1 ranking by winning the 12-man Nedbank Challenge in Sun City by eight shots, chipping in at the last for style points.
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour's Bob Hope Classic, absent a title sponsor since Chrysler peeled out after the 2008 event won by D.J. Trahan, begins Wednesday as the Tour's only remaining five-round stroke-play event. It will feature Matt Kuchar, Stewart Cink, Jamie Lovemark, Ryan Moore and a bunch of retired athletes.
Kuchar tied for second a year ago with Bubba Watson and Tim Clark, who is suffering from a painful blister on his foot.
Which tournament would you rather watch, the HSBC or the Hope? Thanks to the 12-hour time difference between the two (Abu Dhabi is 12 hours ahead of Palm Springs), you can see both.
Golf Channel will air the Hope from 3-6 p.m. ET, Wed-Fri, 4-7 on the weekend, and Abu Dhabi from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1:30-3:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Among the subplots in Abu Dhabi is whether or not Kaymer can play well enough to overtake Tiger Woods at No. 2. Also: Which of the two men tied for fourth in the ranking (McDowell, Mickelson) will end the week ahead of the other? Keep in mind McDowell is coming off a final-round 62 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, and a takedown of Tiger at the Chevron last month.
British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen is coming off a W at the Africa Open, but it's hard to know how much stock to put in a victory over such a weak field. Charl Schwartzel won the Joburg Open last weekend, but he won it last year, too. Is this the year he finally validates by getting it done on a bigger stage?
As with Abu Dhabi, the Hope may not be influenced in the least by the first two weeks of the season.
Rain threw everything off at the Sony, where 27 players played well enough to make a check but nevertheless failed to advance to the weekend rounds, when officials needed a small number of players to get them through 36 holes Sunday.
Remember, too, that Bill Haas shot 73-75 to miss by a mile at the 2010 Sony. Then, after flying to Palm Springs to cram with coach Billy Harmon and Jay Haas, Bill's father, he won the Hope.
"All of a sudden something clicked," Bill Haas said at the Hyundai. "More than anything it showed me that you're not always far off, even when you're shooting a bad score. It can be one little thing. You've got to be patient out here."
Haas, 28, rebounded from a lackluster summer to win again at the Viking Classic, a Fall Series event that was played opposite the Ryder Cup. (It moves opposite the British Open on the 2011 schedule.) All of which made him the most under-the-radar multiple winner of 2010.
"That's understandable," he said. "I'd be the most under-the-radar 10-time Tour winner if I could."
Watson defends at Hualalai
The Champions tour begins its 32nd season at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at the Hualalai Course in Kona, Hawaii, where 61-year-old Tom Watson tries to hang onto the magic he found in holding off rookie Fred Couples in 2010.
Hale Irwin won at Hualalai at age 61 in 2007.
The field is made up of just 42 players, mostly senior major winners from the last five years and official tournament winners in 2009 and 2010. Bernhard Langer, who won at Hualalai in '09, will aim for a historic fourth straight Player of the Year title.
John Cook, who successfully defended his title at the 2010 Schwab Cup Championship, looks to become the first player since Gil Morgan (1997-'98) to win back-to-back season-ending and season-opening tournaments on the Champions tour.
A longtime friend of Tiger Woods, Cook kept sharp in the off-season in part by playing in the pre-tournament pro-am at last month's Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood C.C., which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation.
Golf Channel will show the Mitsubishi Electric from 6:30-9 p.m. ET Friday, and from 7:30-10 a.m. on the weekend.
Ryder Cup keeps spreading the wealth
Ryder Cup captains are good for entertainment as much as their ability to lead and strategize, but the powers that be have forsaken potential dream matchups between winning captains (Ben Crenshaw vs. Seve Ballesteros a decade ago; Paul Azinger vs. Colin Montgomerie today) in lieu of a one-and-done policy.
As expected, it was announced this week that Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal will captain the U.S. and Europe at Medinah, outside Chicago, in 2012. Both men are still actively playing. Love just tied for ninth at the Sony, and Olazabal is embarking on the first of four straight starts in Europe.
It's fitting that Europe would select a captain from the Continent (Spain), since the result from Wales last fall gave Europe a winning record (8-7) since 1979, when it began adding players from the Continent to its formerly Great Britain-and-Ireland -only side. (For some reason a writer for the European Tour's website felt compelled to mention that little factoid. Figured I'd pass it on.)
Olazabal and Ballesteros formed the most successful partnership in Ryder Cup history, with 11 wins and two halves in 15 tries. Love and Tom Kite were responsible for one of the only two losses suffered by the Spaniards, beating them 2 and 1 in a 1993 match that happened to be Love's first taste of Ryder golf.
Team USA's best hope may be Tiger Woods, who won PGA Championship at Medinah in both 1999 and 2006. Europe's Sergio Garcia was second and T3, respectively, but has since disappeared.
The PGA of America is not expected to officially announce Love's captaincy until a press conference at Medinah on Thursday.
Martin Piller, who moved up to the PGA Tour after finishing eighth on the Nationwide money list in 2010, had a good reason for missing the Sony Open in Hawaii last week. He was getting married to LPGA pro Gerina Mendoza in Texas. The groom's green Converse All-Stars matched his tie. … Mercedes-Benz has been named the official vehicle of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. … Tiger Woods, coming off a playoff loss to McDowell at his Chevron Challenge last month, is expected to begin his 2011 at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines next week. Although Torrey is one of his favorite courses (six regular Tour wins, the 2008 U.S. Open, a Junior World title), he's not played there since his myth-making victory on a broken leg in '08. He was coming off major surgery in '09 and missed the Farmers last year after the implosion of his personal life. … The next Oosthuizen could be in the field at the British Open's next 36-hole International Final Qualifying (IFQ) bake-off at South Africa's Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club, Wednesday and Thursday. … Peter Senior, 51, who last month beat Geoff Ogilvy in a playoff at the Australian PGA, failed to get through IFQ in Melbourne last week.