Major force

Phil Mickelson makes his first visit to the Middle East for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Phil Mickelson makes his first visit to the Middle East for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

ROUND 1 UPDATE: Harrington's swing change is working so far

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Abu Dhabi Golf Championship

Jan. 20-23

Course: Abu Dhabi Golf Club (7,510 yards, par 72), Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Purse: $2.7 million. Winner's share: $450,000.

Last year: Germany's Martin Kaymer won the tournament for the second time in three years, birdieing the final hole for a one-stroke victory over Ian Poulter.

FIVE TO WATCH

Jose Maria Olazabal – Ryder Cup captains are often reduced to playing a ceremonial role in tournaments. Not newly appointed 2012 European captain Jose Maria Olazabal. He’s still got the fire in his belly.

Phil Mickelson – Playing for the first time in the Middle East after an eight-week break. All eyes will be on the world No. 4.

Martin Kaymer – It almost goes without saying that the German will be in the mix. He’s won twice here.

Ian Poulter – Finished second here last year and seems to relish playing in the Middle East.

Lee Westwood – Wants to retain his world No. 1 spot until the Masters. A win here would go a long way toward attaining that goal.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Europe ended the 2010 season with the upper hand on the U.S. PGA Tour. It also begins 2011 with a psychological edge.

Phil Mickelson has opted to begin his 2011 campaign on the European Tour’s Middle Eastern swing. Mickelson, the world No. 4, is in this week’s field for the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, his first visit to the UAE.

Europe 1, US nothing.

Mickelson said he is trying to become more of a world player.

“I’m trying to get there,” Mickelson said. “I can’t be considered a world player the way Gary Player was a world player, or even Ernie Els, the way he’s become such an international player.

“It’s certainly something I would like to improve. I’d like to play more internationally.”

Of course, the story behind the story is that Mickelson was paid appearance money this week, a common practice here in the Middle East. As were the other big names in the field such as Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter, Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy.

Tiger Woods reportedly will get $3 million to appear at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic next month. Mickelson won’t be receiving that much, but a guess in the $1 million range wouldn’t be far off. Add another $2.7 million in prize money, and that might comfortably take care of the stars’ appearance fees.

Many would say the money is worth it to get the quality of field on show in Abu Dhabi. All four major winners are in attendance, with British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen joining Mickelson (Masters), McDowell (U.S. Open) and Kaymer (PGA Championship).

It’s just the sort of challenge the left-hander needs after an eight-week break.

“It gives you a good idea of where your game stands because you’re playing against the best players in the world,” Mickelson said. 

“We know we are not going to be as sharp as Thursday at Augusta, but we want to have our game ready and get rid of the rust and be sharp. The only way you know where you stand is to play against the best.”

At the moment, the best is world No. 1 Westwood. Like Mickelson, Westwood is returning after a long break – four weeks to be precise.

“I don’t really know what to expect, which is sometimes a good way to go out on a golf course and play with no expectation,” Westwood said, before adding. “Good things can happen.”

Rest assured it would be a delight for sponsor HSBC if Mickelson and Westwood were in the mix coming down the stretch.

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