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Previewing The Abu Dhabi Golf Championship

Johnie Freatman |
January 19, 2011 | 2:56 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Phil Mickelson is looking to kick off a strong 2011 season. (Creative Commons)
Phil Mickelson is looking to kick off a strong 2011 season. (Creative Commons)
After two PGA Tour events marked by weak fields and nondescript winners, golf fans can finally look forward to the real beginning of the 2011 season.

And no, I’m not talking about the Bob Hope Classic.

Instead, this week’s best golf will be played half a world away at the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. Four of the world’s top five players will be in the field and many other superstars will be making their 2011 debuts. 

After an inconsistent 2010 season that lacked a dominant player, the 2011 season has more questions than any in recent memory. Here are some that will begin to be answered with this week’s play:

1. Will Lee Westwood maintain control of the number one ranking in the world?

Since Lee Westwood surpassed Tiger Woods as the world’s No. 1, he has played very steady golf, to the tune of 11 top 10 finishes in his last 16 appearances.

As steady a ballstriker as there is in the world, Westwood is a safe bet to contend in virtually every tournament he competes in. Though he has had many wins in his career, the one gaping hole in his resume is the lack of a major championship.

The only player in the history of golf to have a top 3 finish in every major without a win, conventional wisdom is that it’s only a matter of time until Westwood’s major breakthrough finally arrives. If it comes this year, especially at The Masters, he may gain the separation needed to keep golf’s top post for an extended period of time.

There are many players within range though, including Woods, who is not playing this week. Martin Kaymer, the 25-year-old German sensation who had a breakthrough 2010 season, has already ascended to No. 3 in the world and is establishing himself as the future of golf.

There’s also perhaps the streakiest player in golf, a certain left-handed, 40-year-old. Which leads us to our next question...

2. Is Phil Mickelson’s best golf behind him?

There was a commercial in 2008 featuring Mickelson called “What Will Phil Do next?" Over time, the golf world has found this to be as difficult a question to answer as any. 

Mickelson won The Masters last year after playing some of the worst golf of his career to begin 2010. His third Masters win was maybe the most thorough performance of his career and got people talking about his seemingly inevitable dominance.

However, that dominance never happened. He was rarely in contention the rest of the year and failed to capitalize on numerous chances to overtake the No. 1 ranking.

Even more troublesome was Mickelson’s revelation that he had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, an often debilitating ailment that ruined the career of Bob Rosburg. Combine this with the battles his wife and his mother continue to fight with breast cancer and the usual sharp decline of golfers after the age of 40, and it’s reasonable to wonder if Mickelson will be able to keep his golf game sharp enough to consistently remain one of the world’s best players.

3. Can Graeme McDowell keep up his torrid play?

If 2010 was a nightmare year for Tiger Woods, it was a fairy tale year for McDowell. After finishing the 2009 season ranked 40th in the world, nobody could have predicted he’d have the season he did. Even after winning the U.S. Open at hallowed Pebble Beach, many wondered if he would be a one-hit wonder, like so many other first-time major champions have been. 

All he did for an encore was win another European Tour event, beat Woods in a playoff at the Chevron World Challenge with two clutch putts, and display his nerves of steel by clinching the winning point for Europe in perhaps the greatest cauldron in all of golf: the Ryder Cup. 

McDowell may be dangerous this week because he has already carried his momentum into 2011. 

To reach Johnie Freatman, click here, or follow him on Twitter @scfreats.

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