The PGA Tour season is two tournaments old, but for all intents and purposes, the 2013 golf year begins Thursday in the United Arab Emirates and La Quinta, Calif., as golf’s three biggest names – Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – will play their first tournaments of the year.
McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 golfer, and Woods, No. 2, will be paired together in the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on the European Tour. The two superstars and rivals have become friends and now both are very highly paid Nike spokesmen. McIlroy’s new deal with Nike was just announced at around $200 million and this will be his first official event with the new clubs in the bag — players in the past have struggled when switching equipment companies, so that’s something to watch.
McIlroy was the best player on both tours last year, winning the money title in Europe and the United States — the second player ever to do so since Luke Donald in 2011. He also won his second major, the PGA Championship. The Northern Irishman is the 9-2 favorite at Bovada to win this event, which is the fourth of the new season on the European Tour. McIlroy has done everything but win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in his career. He has made five starts and has four top-five finishes. McIlroy finished runner-up for the second time at the event a year ago, a shot behind Robert Rock. That the 23-year-old will finish in the top five again is -115. McIlroy is a -120 favorite head-to-head against Woods (-110).
Woods is getting a nice chunk of change as an appearance fee to make his debut this week — coincidentally, appearance fees are not allowed on the PGA Tour. Tiger finally had his breakthrough post-scandal in 2012 with three victories, although he didn’t add a coveted major championship. In fact, Woods didn’t have a top-10 finish in a major (although he was tied for the U.S. Open lead after 36 holes before a disappointing weekend).
The four-time Masters champion is the 6-1 second-favorite this week. In his 2012 premiere of the tournament, Tiger finished tied for third, two shots behind Rock. Tiger finishing in the top five this week is +130, with no at -170. Woods will make his PGA Tour debut next week at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, one of Tiger’s favorite courses, and where in the past he has had much success.
The only other American playing in Abu Dhabi this week is Jason Dufner, who is 22-1 to win. It’s his first time playing in the tournament. Former No. 1 Martin Kaymer, world No. 5 Justin Rose, defending British Open champion Ernie Els, and Padraig Harrington are other big-name players in the field.
Meanwhile, Mickelson starts his year at the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation at PGA West in La Quinta. Lefty lives on the West Coast and usually debuts on the California swing. Mickelson had a bit of a disappointing 2012 season with just one victory — in California, at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The 42-year-old experienced pro was a non-factor in the British Open, U.S. Open and PGA Championship but did conclude the year strong with top-five finishes in two of the four FedEx Cup playoff events.
Mickelson finished tied for 49th in this tournament last year but won it in both 2002 and 2004. He skipped the tournament from 2008-11. The Hall of Famer is the event’s leading money winner with more than $2.04 million earned in eight total starts. He is the 14-1 co-favorite this week with Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar and Tim Clark. Snedeker is the reigning FedEx Cup champion and has finished in the top 10 in this event two of the past three years. Clark has finished runner-up twice in this tournament.