For Europe's top golfers the three-tournament Desert Swing which starts in Abu Dhabi next week cannot come quickly enough, and no one will be happier to be back in the UAE's capital than Paul Casey. His victory 12 months ago launched him on a rapid climb to No 3 in the world rankings, the loftiest position of his career.
Who knows what he might have achieved had he not picked up a rib injury during the British Open, a problem which kept him out of action for much of the year. A joint 10th finish at the SBS Championship in Hawaii last weekend suggested he is not only fully recovered but in no mood to waste time as he looks to return to winning ways. While it may take a while for him to be back to his best, he is a strong contender to notch his third victory in five years in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.
Prior to last January, Casey had not won for two years. His nerves almost got the better of him in the last round when he let a six-stroke lead to shrivel before holding on to take the title by one shot. He will be relishing his title defence on a course he loves, with holes that suit his eye, and will be particularly keen to record a third victory in the event with the likelihood that it will move to the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach layout in the next year or two. Casey would love to repeat his flying start last year when he followed up his Abu Dhabi success by reaching the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and winning the Houston Open and the PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Now ranked No 8 in the world, he will be full of confidence after his solid start in Hawaii where it was clear he has shortened his swing. He still hits the ball a country mile, and I like the change as in the past his swing would sometimes become a little loose at the top. He is capable of hitting shots that not many players in the world can match, and he produced one of the best of last year from underneath the lip of a fairway bunker on the third hole at Wentworth.
He had 165 yards to go, needing the loft of a wedge to escape, or to hit a towering nine iron which he did to leave the ball six inches from the hole. There are only around half a dozen golfers in the world who could even think about pulling off a shot like that. The Gulf's winter sunshine is just what the players need now as most return from a Christmas and New Year break and happily jet away from the big freeze in Europe.
The courses in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai are always in great condition at this early stage in the season and offer excellent practice facilities to help the players work on their swings, groove their putting strokes and build a rhythm. As we saw with Casey last year, the next three weeks could play a crucial role in building confidence and laying the foundations for a successful year. Alternatively, players who do not play well at the start of the season sometimes work even harder on their swing and end up forcing things instead of letting it all happen, with the result that they struggle for much of the year.
This time the Abu Dhabi Championship takes on special significance as the first European Tour event where the ban on square grooves comes into force. While that will not make a lot of difference to some players, others will not find it as easy to adjust to V grooves, particularly when hitting wedge shots from the rough around the greens, and there will be a big onus on hitting fairways.The better players will welcome the change as it means a greater amount of skill and accuracy is now required to win. One of my big hopes is that the greens will be firm, meaning the most creative golfers will have a chance to shine.
The most creative player Europe has produced, Seve Ballesteros, started playing in an era before square grooves were introduced. He loved firm greens, as opposed to heavily watered surfaces which make it easy to stop the ball near the hole, and when he was running a tournament would insist on having them as firm as possible. It made the rest of us think a lot more about our short game, and we would study the way Seve conjured up shots, especially from the rough around the green, when he would use so much skill and imagination. Square grooves took a lot of the skill out of golf and that is why I'm delighted to see the game turning back the clock.
When I think of Seve's stroke-making and short game wizardry the next player who comes to mind is Sergio Garcia - probably the most creative player in the game right now. The return of V grooves could be what he needs to separate himself from the rest, although he still needs to recapture his natural touch on the greens if he is able to make the most of his great talent. If he can do that, there is little to stop him from making a well overdue major breakthrough.
Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin (www.philparkin.com) is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US. @Email:email@example.com