ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Five years ago, if all four reigning major champions and the World No. 1 were battling for a $2.7 million purse in January, the players would most likely be American and the venue would be in California or Arizona. But, this year, it’s in Abu Dhabi with the multi-cultural European Tour.
Phil Mickelson (Masters), Graeme McDowell (U.S. Open), Louis Oosthuizen (British Open), Martin Kaymer (PGA Championship) and Lee Westwood (World No. 1) are chasing a first prize of $453,000 in a stellar field that includes Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Padraig Harrington, Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, Retief Goosen and Paul Casey: four of the world’s top five are here; seven of the top 12. In contrast the Bob Hope Classic has no sponsor and little star quality.
Mickelson, paying his first visit to Abu Dhabi, did his best to divert attention away from the seismic change in world golf, and the decline of top ranked Americans, as the European Tour steals an early-season march on the PGA Tour. He is here in Abu Dhabi in his desire to be more of a world player but a reputed $1.5 million appearance fee certainly helps ease the jet lag from San Diego. As does spending the week with his family in a suite at the stupendously opulent six-star (five stars does doesn’t cut it these days) Emirates Palace Hotel (there’s an ATM machine in the lobby for gold bars).
“Australia has always had a strong presence in the majors as has Europe,” Mickelson said. “And we can’t overlook what Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros have brought to the game. And Ian Woosnam, Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal. There have been so many great European players I would not say it’s a surprise. It makes me feel good to see golf grow.”
The Mickelsons seem to be on a cultural world tour. Last November they were in Shanghai visiting the Terracotta Army. This week they have been to a mosque, taken camel rides and hope to see Petra. Last week they were in Cairo.
“I feel fortunate golf has allowed me an opportunity to experience so many different cultures throughout the world,” Mickelson said. “But when it comes right down to it, it’s really the major championships that we are trying to win and three are in the U.S. and one is in the U.K.”
The desire to add to his four major titles and to finally call himself World No. 1 is clearly driving Mickelson after a season last year that tailed off with illness after his victory at the Masters.
“My goal this year is to have the year I expected 2010 to be,” he said. “With the exception of the Masters, it wasn’t what I hoped for.”
He missed out on several chances to become No. 1 and turned to vegetarianism in an attempt to cure arthritis.
“I was a strict vegetarian for five months,” Mickelson said. “But ultimately it was doomed to fail,” he added laughing.
So he’s back on the eat-as-much-as-you-like meat feast menus. He says his arthritis is never going away but that he has responded well to treatment and it has not inhibited his practice.
“I don’t want to look forward to Saturday or Sunday, but I feel confident I’m going to put together a good round on Thursday and Friday,” he said.
Doesn’t sound too confident. But there’s a good omen for Americans in Abu Dhabi. Chris DiMarco pitched up here in 2006 — and won.
Westwood was the rival that beat Mickelson in the race to overtake Tiger Woods. And the Englishman says he’s enjoying his reign at the top of his sport. He’s even had his teeth fixed and is now sporting a dazzling, made-for-American-TV smile. Westwood has the reverse problem to Mickelson — he’s the world’s best players but is still chasing that elusive first major title.
“It would be nice to go to the Masters as World No. 1,” he said. “My goal is to win some of these early-season tournaments. Hopefully, with a bit of luck, sooner rather than later my time will come to be a first-time major winner and a second-time winner as soon as possible after that,” he said flashing his new molars.
He, like Mickelson, gave the impression that he was rusty after the winter break.
“You could bet five pounds on me, but I wouldn’t advise it,” he said. Westwood said he had wintered well. “I’m not as fat as I thought I’d be,” he said after parties over Christmas and the New Year and a family holiday in Barbados. But now, he admitted, he’s back on his traditional early season alcohol-free fitness regime. “I feel like saying my name is Lee Westwood and I’ve been off it for eight days now,” he said laughing. “It’ll be hard to stop me if I win.”
So that was two press conferences, with Mickelson and Westwood, lasting a total of 43 minutes and there was not one mention of Tiger Woods. The times, as the singer once said, they are a-changin’.