Many are hailing this week’s Abu Dhabi Championship as the first big battle of 2016, particularly between Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, the world’s nos. 1 and 3, respectively. The two headliners are paired together for the first two rounds, along with world no. 6 Rickie Fowler.
Spieth, who won two major championships in 2015, is making his first appearance at a regular European Tour event, and following his eight-shot rout and posting a tournament total of 30-under at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua a few weeks ago, he couldn’t be entering the opening event of the Desert Swing in better form.
“I feel great,” said Spieth on Wednesday. “I came home from Hawaii, took a couple days off, went and saw my instructor, and I actually feel better the about the way I’m striking my irons coming into this week than I did going into Hawaii.
“I’m trying to maintain my putting and maintain my short game statistics, and the way I drove the ball my irons feel very improved. I’m not going to shoot 30-under this week; I don’t think that’s possible on this golf course. That was a dream come true week for me, everything came together and I scored incredibly well. But if I can drive the ball in the places that I was driving it in Kapalua and keep it in the short grass here, I feel very confident about my chances.”
Meanwhile, McIlroy is making his first start of the year at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s hoping to improve on his four runner-up finishes in the last five years at this venue. He’ll have tough competition from not only Spieth, but obviously the other 140-something players.
“I want to play my best, and I don’t have to just beat Jordan Spieth this week,” said McIlroy. “I have to beat another 142 guys.
“So it would be foolish of me to think that that’s all that my competition was, because — and I think it would be an injustice to every other player that’s in the field because there’s so much talent on Tour and there’s so much depth that if you forget about everyone else that could win the tournament, it doesn’t — it’s not really smart to do that.
“I want to play well this week, and if that means laying down a marker to someone or to the rest of the field, then that’s great. But I just want to try to play my best and hopefully win this thing. I’ve had four runners-up and I’ve been close a couple times. Hopefully I can change that this week.”
On a fun note, Rory, Jordan, Rickie and Henrik Stenson (all pictured above) had a sponsor outing that involved them riding on Golf Boards on Tuesday. Sounds like Jordan might be a little more worried about Rory than we thought — apparently he tried to take out the Northern Irishman! OK, not really, but it still sounds funny.
“Actually Jordan nearly took me out,” explained McIlroy. We collided halfway down the fairway. Thankfully I didn’t fall off. It was really good fun. It was a nice way to start the week.”
Added Spieth: “Well, he’s one very good player that I could have taken out of the field (laughter).
“But we were instructed to go through a pretty narrow gap and there was four of us on the Golf Boards. So Rickie and Henrik were out front and Rory and I were kind of going this way together and I kind of slowed down and bumped the back of his board. Fortunately his ankles stayed on the board, so that was nice.
“But yeah, we had a good time yesterday. Yeah, it was not deliberate. It was the first time I think for everybody on those boards. We’re just happy that we’re all standing today and ready to go.”
Here are some interesting Jordan vs. Rory stats via europeantour.com (it’s worth checking out the infographic/lay out — which is very sharp and cool):
*62 of 66: Either Rory or Jordan has been World Number One for 62 of the last 66 weeks. Combined they have won four of the last eight major championships.
*Cool side-by-side look at their stats over the past two years:
*Rory’s record at Abu Dhabi Golf Club:
“I don’t think there’s any better place to start the year than here in Abu Dhabi, with the weather, the golf course, the field that HSBC is able to put together. It’s a real competitive start to the year, and I feel like it’s really helped me start the year quickly and well over the past few years, and hopefully that’s the same case this year.”
“This is not only one of the biggest events of the year field-wise, it’s one of the largest European Tour events, one of the strongest fields of the year. And it really kick starts kind of a world tour of 2016, and it happens to be over here.”
*Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have played in the same field on 37 occasions since Spieth turned pro in 2012. Of those events, each has lifted the trophy four times, but in terms of higher finishes, McIlroy leads the overall head-to-head.
McIlroy: 20, Spieth: 14, tie: 3
*0.5: Over the 37 events they have both played together, McIlroy’s average score (70.2) is a half shot better per round than Spieth (70.7). However, Spieth has come out better in four of their last six joint appearances.
WHO YOU GOT? Team Rory or Team Jordan?
(Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)