World No. 1 Dustin Johnson tries to go back-to-back, while Rory McIlroy makes his 2018 debut after three months completely off the golf grid. Let’s get weird and watch late-night golf.
The European Tour is golf’s version of MACtion or FunBelt football. It’s often played at weird times and in weird locales and not always with the most loaded roster of players. If you’re a golf diehard though, you’ve come to love this alt-golf option with the quirky opportunities the second biggest Tour in the world presents.
The annual Middle East swing near the start of the year is one of the Euro Tour’s most important stretches on the schedule. The heart of the swing is made up of two events in oil-rich spots that have quickly risen in prominence and become traditions on the Euro Tour. The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is first up, followed by the Omega Dubai Desert Classic next week. The Qatar Masters has fallen in this set in prior years, but that has now been bumped back a month and paired with a new event in the Oman Open
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship does a strong job of attracting top players from all over the world. It annually gets a set of highly rated PGA Tour names to make the trip, dangling that sweet appearance fee cash. Those payoffs are forbidden on the PGA Tour, but these events in the United Arab Emirates have plenty of money to throw around. Tiger Woods has patronized both the Abu Dhabi event and the Dubai Desert Classic, where he showed up last year before withdrawing after one round and disappearing again for the entire season.
The 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship has a strong mix of PGA Tour and Euro Tour stars. From the stateside circuit, it got world No. 1 Dustin Johnson to come over following his dominant win in Hawaii. Matt Kuchar and Bryson Dechambeau are also here. But it’s not as strong a haul as in previous years, which have included Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, and that Tiger guy.
On the European side, however, pretty much everyone has made the trip, and the broadcast will have plenty of stars to feature. Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Martin Kaymer, Paul Casey, and Thomas Pieters are just a few of the Euro Tour members, and prospective Ryder Cup players, playing this week. Here’s why to watch this week, as well as the nuts and bolts for one of the Euro Tour’s premier events.
1) Rory McIlroy. It’s the 2018 debut for McIlroy, the centerpiece star of the European Tour and the most exciting player in the world to watch ... when he’s got it all working. McIlroy has been off the grid since the Dunhill Links last October. After spending much of 2017 in some sort of pain or discomfort, he finally shut it down for good and went away to get right.
Now, he’s back at his customary starting point in the Middle East. He says he’s rejuvenated and refocused — the usual kind of babble you get from athletes after an offseason. Except with him it seems real, simply because it has to be. He had to figure out his health and put in some serious short-game work after some disappointing — in relative McIlroy terms — major-less seasons. He’s also changing the way he approaches his schedule, saying he may make as many as 30 starts this year. There are eight already officially on his schedule before the Masters.
This is just a first look at McIlroy, so it doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme, but the anticipation has been naturally building. In our West Coast swing discussion, I wrote that we seem to start every recent season with “This is gonna be the Year of McIlroy” hype. It’s about to start again. Let’s see how he looks nuking drives off the tee after a few months out of the public eye.
2) Dustin Johnson. You try not to get too caught up in focusing on just a couple stars in a massive field of world-class pros, but Rory and Johnson are reason alone to watch this thing. Johnson is far and away the best player in the world right now. He’s also just different to watch, getting it done in a way that probably everyone else, save for McIlroy, can’t really approach. He’s got a chance to pile up the wins before Augusta and roll in there again as the heavy favorite.
Johnson overwhelmed a field of last year’s PGA Tour winners to start 2018 with an 8-shot win in Maui. He hit what Brandel Chamblee called the greatest shot in the history of golf. That may be madness, but that is the kind of stuff that makes Johnson worth watching on his own, even if it is the middle of the night in January on a random Euro Tour event.
3) Desert primetime golf. This is not the Masters, but primetime golf is still always something to watch. Have your nightcap with it. Fall asleep to it. Wake up and rock your screaming baby in the middle of the night with it. The point is, it’s there and it’s rare, and it’s a nice comfort to have.
How to watch
I’m going to let you in on a lesser-known reality that only the closest golf-watchers have come to recognize. The Euro Tour production and broadcasts are so much better than the PGA Tour coverage we get in the States each week. There are fewer commercials, a lot less — or none — of those paid segments that interrupt the actual tournament to show you how Nick Faldo works out, and there are many more actual golf shots shown.
Golf Channel again has the Euro Tour coverage this year. As I noted in the open, this is fantastic alt-golf stuff. Here’s your schedule for the week in Abu Dhabi. The first two rounds’ coverage is targeted around the tee times of McIlroy and Johnson (ALL TIMES ET!)
Saturday’s third-round coverage
3:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. — Golf Channel
3:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. — Golf Channel simulcast stream
Sunday’s final round coverage
3:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. — Golf Channel
3:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. — Golf Channel simulcast stream
Abu Dhabi is nine hours ahead of the eastern United States. They Euro Tour will keep them in groups of three on Saturday even with half the field cut down at the 36-hole mark. The final group is off just after 3 a.m. ET, setting up a finish likely around 7:30 back in the states. The leaderboard is completely loaded and almost every big name in the field is playing late in the day. Here are some of your marquee groups and the last times of the day (All Times ET!):
2:15 a.m. — Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Fabrizio Zanotti
2:25 a.m. — Beef Johnston, Dylan Frittelli, Chris Paisley
2:35 a.m. — Andy Sullivan, Branden Grace, Ryan Fox
2:45 a.m. — Rory McIlroy, Bernd Wiesberger, Sam Brazel
2:55 a.m. — Tommy Fleetwood, Alex Levy, Paul Casey
3:05 a.m. — Thomas Pieters, Ross Fisher, Jorge Campillo
There are some good players on the Euro circuit -- the diehards will probably recognize at least one name in every group (full tee sheet can be found here). The casual watchers will definitely not know more than a handful, and maybe even just a handful from the smaller set of marquee groups listed above. But there’s talent all over the tee sheet.
Round 1 Scores
New year, same Tommy Fleetwood. The defending champ had a breakout season in 2017 and it originated in Abu Dhabi. The likely Ryder Cupper is playing with Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson the first two days. While watching those two big sticks blast it way by him, Fleetwood just went out and hit his greens-in-regulation and cleaned up with a 66 to share the lead with Hideto Tanihara. Rory is 3-under and world No. 1 DJ even-par and in a tie for 69th.
Round 2 Scores
Rory’s back! The marquee trio at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship put on a show in Friday’s second round. They all went low, with Dustin Johnson leading the way with an 8-under 64 to rocket back into contention. We expect those low rounds from DJ — he’s the world No. 1 and he had the most ground to make up starting the day deep down the board at even-par.
The story will be Rory, who is back after more than 100 days off and has gone through the first 36 holes without a bogey. Friday’s round was a 6-under 66 and he’s now at 9-under and in a tie for 6th heading to the weekend. I thought Thursday’s opening round started in disappointment, with some sloppy wedges and burned edges and it seemed like this might be an uneven return to the game for Rory (which was understandable). It all ended with an eagle at the last that has us salivating for the weekend.
"Welcome back Rory!"— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 19, 2018
McIlroy eagles the 18th to finish at 9 under par pic.twitter.com/1QKT60ykZy
Big Tommy Pieters is your 36-hole leader. We know Pieters is a mega-talent and primed for big things. If anything, last year might have been disappointing because of his majors performance — the expectations are that high. He’s going to do big things and a win early at the top of the year could be the start of a big season.
Here are your scores after 36 holes in Abu Dhabi: