McIlroy, Woods among top-class field
After the buzz of his multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal and a fight over the European Ryder Cup captain, Rory McIlroy is looking forward to actually playing some golf again.
The world's top-ranked golfer and PGA Championship winner leads a star-studded field at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship that also includes Tiger Woods, No. 5 Justin Rose, Ernie Els and Martin Kaymer.
McIlroy signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike this week and then led the charge to support of Paul McGinley in his successful campaign to become Europe's Ryder Cup captain for 2014.
Now he's looking forward to getting his year off to a strong start at the National Course, where he has repeatedly come up short against Kaymer, a three-time winner here.
''It's a place I have done well. I think one problem for me the last few years has been Martin Kaymer. He's played really well around here and won it a couple of times, three times I think, and I always came up second best,'' said McIlroy, who is coming off a season-ending victory at the Dubai World Championship as well as the European and PGA tour money titles.
''It would be nice to go one better this week and obviously that's what I'm aiming for, but it's a great field and looks like the golf course is in great shape as well.''
Most of the questions to McIlroy this week has been about his new sponsorship deal - estimated to be worth up to $20 million a year - but he insisted his emergence as a mega-rich athlete would have no bearing on how he approaches 2013.
''I'm just concentrating on playing golf. You know, all the financial side and everything like that will take care of itself,'' the 23-year-old Northern Irishman said. ''I'm in it to try and win trophies and they are worth more to me than any contract.''
The spotlight on McIlroy will be even bigger this week as he's paired with Woods for the first two days, in a group that also includes Kaymer, giving fans another chance to see golf's two biggest names go at it.
''I just want to get off to a good start,'' said Woods, who had a share of the lead after three round last year in Abu Dhabi but finished third after shooting a 72. ''I'm playing two weeks in a row, and I had a nice break and have geared up for these two weeks and have tried to get mentally and physically ready for these two tournaments.''
Woods said he was happy with his ball striking and short game toward the end of last season so he hasn't made any major changes to his swing.
So is he ready to challenge McIlroy for the No. 1 ranking? Woods said that for now, he's just concerned with winning.
''The rankings take care of themselves by winning golf tournaments,'' Woods said. ''I was at one point, what was I, outside the top 50 or whatever it was. But I won three times last year and lo and behold, look where I'm at. It's about winning golf tournaments and being consistent.''
Among those closing the gap on the top two is Rose, who starred in Europe's Ryder Cup victory over the United States and almost stole a victory from McIlroy in the Dubai World Championship. The Englishman shot a course-record 62 that included an eagle and eight birdies but fell two shots short.
Rose, who is making his first appearance in Abu Dhabi, said he was glad to be flying ''under the radar'' in the tournament where Woods and McIlroy are taking top billing.
''Well, I think status is something I'm a long way from, but I believe my game is not far at all,'' Rose said in comparing himself to Woods an McIlroy. ''I'm very happy that I can close the gap or hopefully make the gap disappear with some hard work and some just continue what I'm doing. From a golf point of view, that's what I'm excited about. I'm very close to the very top end of the game and I still feel I have a lot more to give.''
Kaymer, a former No. 1 whose struggles last year resulted in him falling to 28th, said he was hopeful his Ryder Cup performance - he sank the putt that allowed Europe to retain the trophy - could inspire better results in 2013.
''It's a good feeling knowing that at least something worked out (last) year. I did so much, I worked on a lot of different parts in my golf, and it has not really worked out all year. Even though I played well, but it just didn't happen,'' Kaymer said. ''And then something career-changing happened. And obviously that gives you so much motivation and belief.''