With eight of the top 14 players in the world teeing it up today, the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship has all the makings of a classic duel in the desert. The strongest field for a European Tour event so far this season has descended on the UAE capital, and over the next four days we may get some early indications of the players heading for a big year in 2010.
My favourite has to be Lee Westwood, one of a cluster of golfers in action in Abu Dhabi who have already found success in the desert in recent years. The world No 4 played magnificently on his last visit to the UAE two months ago when he won the Dubai World Championship to finish No 1 in Europe for the second time. He did it in the style which we had not seen from the Englishman since his previous order of merit triumph 10 years earlier.
Back then, Westwood had the game to win a major, but even though he scored five victories in 2000 and had the best stroke average and putting record on the Tour, he lacked the experience of the big occasion to collect one of the game's big four titles. That is no longer the case, as his performance in becoming the first winner of the Race to Dubai showed. Westwood simply oozed confidence, displaying great self belief in his shot making and putting as well a rock solid mental discipline.
To have won the title with such a confident and impeccable performance was a breakthrough for Lee. It will have proved to him that he should fear nothing and no one and that, when he is at the top of his game, he will win. By concentrating on his own game and just playing the course, letting the other players worry about him, he will build even more confidence. He is one of the best golfers to come out of the UK in recent times. Only one other Englishman, Nick Faldo, has won more Tour titles while Westwood shares with Arnold Palmer the record of 12 consecutive Ryder Cup matches without defeat, a statistic which makes him a man the Americans will fear at Celtic Manor later in the year.
South Africa's Charl Schwartzel is not in Westwood's class yet, but he leads the Race to Dubai and has a chance in Abu Dhabi to become the first player since Spain's Seve Ballesteros in 1986 to win three European Tour events in a row. After his victory in the Africa Open, Schwartzel turned in an even better performance in his home city to clinch the Johannesburg Open by six shots. He now has five Tour wins to his credit, although it really should have been more for a player of his quality. It is something of a mystery to me that he did not win in his first two years as a professional.
When he arrived on the scene, with a great swing and a very solid all round game, he was fancied to become the youngest player to win on Tour. Somehow it did not happen, and while five tournament wins by the age of 25 is still quite an achievement, I believe Schwartzel is capable of much more. He would probably admit that, at times, his putting has not kept up with the rest of his game. At least that was the case until he had a go with his father's putter a few months ago, fell in love with it, and has been using it to great effect ever since, without even changing the old grip.
Ironically, it is the same type of putter that Nick Price used in his two golden years of 1993 and 1994 when he won three majors and rose to No 1 in the world. Unfortunately for Price, and luckily for his contemporaries, those were the only two years when he putted really well. Schwartzel has not reached his standard yet, but he has the swing and the length off the tee to go a lot further. If he can maintain his form on the greens, build his self belief and find the inspiration that separates great players from the rest, he could be a major champion.
He has become a lot stronger physically over the last two years and this has helped his swing. Even though it looked good before, he did not have the power to coordinate upper and lower body control on a consistent basis. That has improved a great deal and he has a great chance in Abu Dhabi to show how much progress he has made against some of the best golfers in the world. Of the other obvious contenders, you can never count out Ian Poulter and if he can putt as well as he is capable on greens as good as those in Abu Dhabi, he could be there or thereabouts on Sunday afternoon.
The same can be said of Paul Casey, and recent winner on the PGA Tour, Geoff Ogilvy, who looks like he has found his silky putting stroke again. Both Casey and Ogilvy live in the Arizona desert and are perfectly at home in the kind of surroundings they find themselves this week. If Sergio Garcia could putt like Poulter or Ogilvy, he would be my pick. While he is been showing some improvement with the longer putts, he still does not look confident over the shorter ones and often misses them through lack of speed and commitment.
I would like to see Sergio find the confidence to put a good roll on the ball without worrying about the result. A confident putter will always putt better. Missing short putts is demoralising, and can build frustration that eventually effects your entire game, forcing you to be more aggressive with other shots to make up for the weakness on the greens. If Sergio can overcome that problem, he could be in for a great season.
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