Golf fans hold their breath as Spieth prepares to challenge McIlroy in Abu Dhabi

Golf fans hold their breath as Spieth prepares to challenge McIlroy in Abu Dhabi

The 2016 European Tour season began in November last year, a full four days after Rory McIlroy wrapped up the 2015 season with victory in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

And the PGA Tour went one better – or one worse, depending on your point of view – by starting their “wraparound” season in October, meaning they have already staged nine regular tournaments and two lucrative limited-field events.

But with all due to respect to those events, including the WGC-HSBC Champions which is part of the current PGA Tour schedule, the real golfing season starts in Abu Dhabi this week.

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship is only in its 11th year and has a prize fund lower than every single event on the PGA Tour, even those scheduled against majors and World Golf Championship events.

What it can crucially boast, however, is world number one Jordan Spieth and number three Rory McIlroy in the same field for the first time in a season which promises a thrilling battle for supremacy and the game’s biggest prizes.

Golf fans hold their breath as Spieth prepares to challenge McIlroy in Abu Dhabi

“I didn’t know he was playing. I’ll probably withdraw now,” Spieth joked last week.

Spieth has hit the ground running, becoming only the second player in PGA Tour history to finish a 72-hole tournament at 30 under par or lower in winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

The 22-year-old also joined Tiger Woods as the only player to win seven times before the age of 23 in Kapalua, extending his lead over Jason Day in the world rankings to 1.4 points into the bargain.

In contrast, McIlroy has not played competitively since that win in Dubai, after which he admitted he was relishing a long lay-off.

“I think because Abu Dhabi is being pushed back a week, it’s probably the longest break I’ve had since 2009,” McIlroy said at the time.

“I always try to draw a line in the sand at some point. The good and bad thing about golf is it doesn’t really have an off-season. I really feel, even though I’ve had a few weeks off over the summer,

“I need that off period just to reflect on things, re-evaluate how I want to go forward.

“I want to try and get healthy and get stronger again because I haven’t been able to do as much in the gym as I would have liked over the past few months.

“I’ve got an eight-week period where I don’t have to play golf. I don’t have to worry about being sore.

“I might hit a few shots between now and the new year, but I won’t get serious until after the new year when I come back here to Dubai early January and start to practise again before the season.”

Those “few weeks off” in the summer were, of course, a result of the ankle injury McIlroy suffered during a game of football at the start of July, which ruled him out of the Scottish Open as well as the defence of his titles in the Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

The 26-year-old still managed to win the Race to Dubai for the third time in four years, a fact which did not go unnoticed by Spieth.

“In a season that he considered lost, he still came back and ended up winning the Race to Dubai and the final event,” Spieth added.

“It proves what a player he is. I’m sure there’s very few people working harder than he is to make this season his best season yet, which is scary. Hopefully, I can help prevent that to an extent.”

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