After a sensational 2012 campaign which culminated in him winning the Money Lists on both sides of the Atlantic, Rory McIlroy gets his 2013 season underway this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, a tournament won in thrilling fashion by Robert Rock 12 months ago.
McIlroy has not finished outside the top five in his last four visits to the stunning Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which has hosted the US$2.7million tournament since its inauguration in 2006.
Last year, the World Number One was denied victory by Rock who, despite having Thomas Björn, Graeme McDowell and Tiger Woods all breathing down his neck, kept his cool in the heat of battle to secure his second European Tour title by one shot from McIlroy.
McIlroy and World Number Two Woods again headline a stellar field in the United Arab Emirates this week, with the Northern Irishman itching to return to competitive action after taking a well-earned break at the end of a season which yielded victories at the US PGA Championship, the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai and, of course, The Ryder Cup.
He said: “I’ve had a nice break over Christmas and the New Year, but it’s back to business now. Abu Dhabi is a great place to start the season, as it’s one of my favourite tournaments. This is the sixth time I will have played the tournament, and I’ve always done pretty well here in the past. In the last four years, I have had two second place finishes, a third and a fifth, so I know it’s a golf course that really suits my game.
“I’m looking forward to getting my 2013 season off and running, and hopefully I can carry my momentum over from last year into this one. Last year was obviously an amazing season for me and it’s going to be tough to top it, but I feel refreshed and excited about the year ahead.”
Fresh from finishing in 24th place at last week’s Volvo Golf Champions, Rock returns to Abu Dhabi determined to repeat one of the more unlikely victories of last season.
Rock went into the final round tied with Woods on 11 under par, but few observers gave the then-World Number 117 much hope of triumphing over his playing partner, a winner of 14 Major titles.
But whilst Woods could only manage to shoot level par, Rock thrived on the pressure, notching five birdies in a closing round of 70 for a 13 under par aggregate winning total.
The victory changed Rock’s life, as he became something of a cult hero, and whilst the 35 year old remains an admirably unassuming character he is still relishing the prospect of testing himself again against the top two players in the world.
Rock said: “I had a couple of decent opening rounds, a couple under par but nothing spectacular. But then I got into a decent flow on Saturday, hit some really good iron shots and holed a few nice putts. About half way through my round, the goal was to try to get to play with Tiger on Sunday. I spoke to him for the first time on Saturday morning, which was nice. And as I got further through the round, I realised I might have a chance to play with him on Sunday.
“I still needed a couple of good finishing holes, and I managed to birdie both 17 and 18, which meant I was a definite to play with him, so I was just excited about that. That Saturday was the best I played by a long way, because I definitely felt I was in control of what I was doing. On Sunday I was more nervous. I still hit some really good shots in the final round, but just didn’t really feel like I was in the same sort of rhythm. But I somehow managed to keep my nose in front, and when I won it was a mixture of surprise, relief and elation.
“It took me from really doubting myself to knowing there’s not much that will bother me, which is quite a big leap. I think I’ve got that belief for good now. I’ve yet to really test it again, but it’s good knowing that I won’t be scared. Even if I get paired with Tiger and Rory, I’ll be nervous again but I won’t be scared.”
Rock will be joined in Abu Dhabi by his compatriot Justin Rose, whose last performance on The European Tour was a runner-up finish behind his Ryder Cup team-mate McIlroy at the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai.
The World Number Five also finished runner-up in The 2012 Race to Dubai, again behind McIlroy, and he will start his quest to go one better in 2013 with a debut visit to Abu Dhabi Golf Club this week.
Other notable names in the star-studded line-up include the reigning Open Champion Ernie Els of South Africa, American Ryder Cup player Jason Dufner, and the man who holed the winning putt at Medinah Country Club, Martin Kaymer.
The German boasts an incredible record at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, having won the tournament on three occasions – in 2008, 2010 and 2011 – and finished runner-up in 2009.
Rejuvenated Englishman Paul Casey, who finished in a tie for 18th place at Durban Country Club last week, is also a course specialist, having won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in 2007 and 2009.