Abu Dhabi the first battleground for Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy in their duel to rule golf

Grouped together for the opening rounds, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy resume their rivalry to be recognised the top dog of golf in Abu Dhabi.

It may have been fun and games in the build-up to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, but it will be down to business for Rory McIlroy, left, and Jordan Spieth when play starts on Thursday. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
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ABU DHABI // For two guys apparently on a collision course for titles and trinkets through 2016, they took it a little too literally in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

The golfing world may be pining for Jordan Spieth versus Rory McIlroy, and it will get a first taste of that at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship starting Thursday, but it was at the sponsors’ launch event two days before where the two initially clashed.

Cruising upon novelty scooters as they indulged in a bit of GolfBoarding at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club alongside Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson, Spieth and McIlroy each headed for the same narrow gap in the fairway. Expected to butt heads all season long, they bumped boards instead.

“Jordan nearly took me out,” McIlroy said. “We collided halfway down the fairway. Thankfully I didn’t fall off.”

As far as Spieth is concerned, that might not have exactly been a bad thing. At world No 3, McIlroy ranks two behind the game’s top dog, and is expected to represent the American’s chief challenge this year. So knocking a main rival off his perch could have worked to Spieth’s advantage, after all.

“Well, he’s one good player that I could’ve taken out of the field,” Spieth joked. “Fortunately his ankle stayed on, so that was nice. I’m just happy we’re all standing today and ready to go.”

That sounds ominous enough for Spieth’s fellow combatants this week. He arrived in Abu Dhabi for the first time on Monday, fresh off his own demolition job in Hawaii, when he began 2016 with a rampant victory at the Tournament of Champions. In Kapalua, Spieth lapped the field and became only the second player on the PGA Tour to finish a tournament at 30 under-par. Surely he can’t be that good again?

“I actually feel better about the way I’m striking my irons coming into this week than I did going into Hawaii,” he said. “But I’m not going to shoot 30-under this week; I don’t think that’s possible on this golf course.”

INTERACTIVE: Guide to the 2016 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship course

Spieth, 22, has a knack of making the seemingly impossible possible, though. Just take the past 12 months, which included two major championship successes, the FedEx Cup, a single-season record $12m (Dh44m) — and a further $10m FedEx bonus — banked on the PGA Tour and his ascension to the head of the rankings.

Such a run means he currently constitutes the guy with the target on his back. But, then, his shoulders seem broad enough to embrace it. In fact, it simply strengthens his conviction.

“There’s two ways of going forward with that,” Spieth said. “One is you can be satisfied and think about all the stuff you’ve done. Or two, you can look at these guys, who you’ve looked up to your whole life, who have accomplished more than you have.

“Tiger [Woods], Phil [Mickelson], Rory: these guys have done more in the game of golf than I have and I want to strive to get to what they have done. I want my name to go down in history for as many things as it can. That’s where my mind is: I’m less satisfied with what’s happened and more hungry to try and keep it going.”

Thankfully for golf, McIlroy shares that appetite. The Northern Irishman enjoyed a fine 2015, too, winning four times and sealing a third Race to Dubai crown in four years. However, a fifth major title proved elusive, while he relinquished his grip on the world No 1 spot, as well, so those form pretty obvious objectives for one of the game’s brightest talents. He is intent on being golf’s leading light again.

“I made no secret about I want to get back to that position, and I’d like to do it as quick as possible,” McIlroy said. “That’s definitely a motivation.”

As is Spieth, no doubt. The duo have been paired together for the first two rounds in Abu Dhabi, with world No 6 Fowler for company, which is sure to attract eyeballs not only around the National Course but also across the planet.

GROUPS AND TEE TIMES: Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship — Round 1

McIlroy admits he gets a buzz from contesting such heavyweight groupings, although he is not focused solely on sending out a real statement this week, even with Spieth in close proximity. He caught bits of The Spieth Show in Kapalua, but the time difference between there and the UAE was not in his favour.

“I don’t play the game on laying down markers at all,” McIlroy said. “I want to play my best, and I don’t have to just beat Jordan Spieth this week. I have to beat another 142 guys.

“So it would be foolish of me to think that that’s all that my competition was — and I think it would be an injustice to every other player that’s in the field because there’s so much talent on tour.

“I want to play well this week, and if that means laying down a marker to someone or to the rest of the field, then that’s great. But I just want to try to play my best and hopefully win this thing. I’ve had four runners-up and I’ve been close a couple times. Hopefully I can change that this week.”

If finally sealing the Falcon Trophy constitutes an immediate target, then McIlroy has already mapped out what else he wants from the next 12 months. It has become tradition since he turned professional, where last year he revealed he scribbles down his season’s goals on his boarding ticket as he takes the flight from Dublin to Dubai to begin his pre-season practice. Some are easier to guess than others.

“There’s always obvious ones and result-based goals, but I never really write those down because they are always there,” he said. “They are always obvious; always in the forefront of your mind. You want to win tournaments and you want to achieve things, but it’s about how to go about that on your off-weeks, what you need to do, preparing technically, physically, mentally.

“So a lot of the stuff is to do with that, the preparation, and making sure that I’m fully ready to go every week of the year.”

So it’s safe to assume the Masters, and the chance to complete the career grand slam, doesn’t require its own space.

“Yeah, that’s obvious,” McIlroy said. “I don’t need to write that down.”

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Rory McIlroy talks 2016 aims, Abu Dhabi, Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods

Spieth did not disclose if he jots down his targets, but team tournaments certainly rank high on his priority list for 2016. There is golf’s return to the Olympics, to take place in Rio de Janeiro in August, and then the small matter of the Ryder Cup, the following month at Hazeltine, of course.

With the USA seeking to take back the trophy from Europe, and thus arrest a run of eight defeats in the past 10 biennial battles, Spieth is clearly amped up, even this far out. Ditto for his compatriots.

“It’s a huge goal this year for me, and possibly at the very top of the list to try and get that win as a team,” he said. “We are tired of hearing about changes that need to be made. We are tired of hearing about the past. And we’re ready to believe in kind of a younger, hungrier team going forward.

“It looks like it’s going to be a younger average-age team than what we’ve had. I don’t think that maybe makes a difference, but what I mean by that is there’s less scar tissue there.

“But we have a lot of momentum at this very point in time right now. It’s still a long ways until Hazeltine, but if we can continue what we’ve been doing over this past year in young American golf, we’re going to go get in that team room and be pretty excited about who is next to us.”

Perhaps the last defeat, at Gleneagles in 2014, helps the hunger.

“Not very helpful. I’d rather just win each time,” Spieth said. “I mean, I was hungry enough to start. I didn’t need anymore. We had heard enough about our losses and we’ll continue to hear that.

“But if we go in believing that the Ryder Cup, this is the inaugural event, this is a clean slate, we are ready to go and start a new trend, then I think we’ll be fine.”

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