Larrazabal stars in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy and Mickelson set the stage for a big 2014

Rory McIlroy fired a 5-under 67 on Friday to move within two shots of the lead in Abu Dhabi.

Rory McIlroy fired a 5-under 67 on Friday to move within two shots of the lead in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – If the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship is a precursor to what we’ll see in 2014, then it should be a great season. We’d take Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson at the top of leader boards all year, especially in the major championships.

They lived up to their large appearance fees with joint second-place finishes behind Pablo Larrazabal. The Spaniard took the top prize of $450,000 with a 72-hole total of 14-under 274 on Jan. 19 at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. McIlroy and Mickelson finished a shot behind, thanks to Rory’s ignorance of the rules and Phil just being Phil.

McIlroy’s performance in Abu Dhabi suggests he is back to his best. It heralds a return to winning ways. All he needs is to change his cavalier attitude to the rules and everything will be fine. Mickelson’s cavalier style of play cost him the tournament, but we don’t want him to ditch that. It’s why he’s maybe the world’s most exciting player.

McIlroy lost the tournament for the second time in three years because he doesn’t know the Rules of Golf. If he’s not willing to learn the 34 laws, then he should delegate that responsibility to caddie JP Fitzgerald before it costs him a really important championship. One of them should have known that full relief is required under Rule 25-1 (“Abnormal Ground Conditions”).

The 24-year-old took a two-shot penalty on the second hole of the third round when he didn’t take complete relief from a spectator walkway. Veteran caddie Dave Renwick, who works for Ricardo Gonzalez and was paired with McIlroy, noticed the violation.

Renwick informed McIlroy on the 18th green before the Northern Irishman signed his scorecard. Renwick, McIlroy and European Tour chief referee John Paramor revisited the spot to confirm the violation. Two years ago, McIlroy was docked two shots for brushing sand off the fringe of the ninth green here. On that occasion, he lost by a shot to Robert Rock. McIlroy’s response to not knowing one of the basic rules of the game was disappointing.

“There’s a lot of stupid rules in golf, and this is one of them,” he said. More disturbing was his refusal to try to learn the rules. “That’s what we have referees for,” McIlroy said. “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

There even seemed to be a touch of sour grapes immediately after he lost the tournament.

“I’m standing here and I should be 15 under par for the tournament and won by one,” McIlroy said. “I played the least shots of anyone this week. I can count it as a moral victory more than anything else.”

Note to McIlroy’s tour manager, Sean O’Flaherty: Slip a rule book into McIlroy’s golf bag and encourage him to spend 10 minutes a day learning the laws of the game. It could prove beneficial down the line.

Though McIlroy’s knowledge of rules wasn’t sharp, his game was. His estimable skills were back on display. Last week’s performance was a huge improvement from 12 months ago, when McIlroy slipped out of the UAE’s richest emirate after missing the cut with a pair of 75s. It took him nearly the entire season to get his game back.

“I feel good about my game and feel like I’m back to the place I want to be,” McIlroy said. “I’m driving the ball well, hitting the ball solid and giving myself plenty of chances at birdies. If I can keep doing that, the wins will come. I can’t let one thing ruin this week. It’s been a very positive week, a great way to start the season. I’m excited for the weeks ahead.”

So is Mickelson. He announced at the start of the week that he might be looking at the best season of his career. A new 9.5-degree Callaway Big Bertha Alpha driver has Mickelson relishing the months ahead.

“I drive it longer and straighter with my driver than I did with my 3-wood. It’s a whole different weapon in my arsenal,” he said. “If I drive the ball well, like I have been in practice and I have been in the offseason, heading into this 2014 season, could be the best year of my career.”

It took Mickelson two days to shake off the rust of an eight-week layoff. A third-round 63 put him into contention. He might have won the tournament if not for his trademark attitude of playing from virtually any lie. Mickelson held the lead in the final round until a triple bogey on the par-4 13th hole cost him. The reigning Open Championship winner hit his tee shot into a bush left of the fairway. He tried to play it out right-handed with a 4-iron rather than take a penalty drop. (He said his drop options “didn’t give me a shot.”)

His swipe hit a branch of the bush and the ball rebounded onto his club. The double-hit left the ball under the bush, and he had to play right-handed again. He was able to get it out with his fourth shot, hit his fifth to just off the green and two-putted for 7.

“It never crossed my mind it might double-hit,” Mickelson said. “I was just trying to dribble it out of the bush because I couldn’t get the unplayable lie to give me a shot. I thought it was worth the risk.” Typical Phil.

The jury’s out on whether Larrazabal can build on this victory, the third of his career, to earn his way onto the European Ryder Cup team. The gritty way he holed out from 5 feet for birdie and victory on the last hole suggests he can handle Ryder Cup pressure. What doesn’t seem in question? McIlroy and Mickelson are looking at big seasons ahead.

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