European Tour

No McIlroy but field still strong for Abu Dhabi

Dustin Johnson (Getty Images)
Dustin Johnson (Getty Images)

Abu Dhabi - World No 3 Dustin Johnson and No 4 Henrik Stenson will headline a quality field at the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the opening leg of the Desert Swing of the European Tour.

The tournament gets underway on Thursday and will miss world No 2 Rory McIlroy, who was scheduled to play before pulling out on Monday with a stress fracture in his ribs.

But there are plenty of big names in field, including Masters champion Danny Willett, defending champion Rickie Fowler and world No 10 Alex Noren.

US Open champion Johnson is the highest ranked player in McIlroy's absence, but he was categorical in assessing that it did not make the tournament any easier to win.

Johnson, who is known for making quick starts to his seasons on the PGA Tour, said: "No, if you look at the field, it's got a great field here. Obviously, Rory is a great player and no one wanted to see him pull out, including myself."

"I still think it's going to be a great tournament. It's going to be very tough to win."

The 7,583-yard course has favoured good drivers in the past, and that is the cornerstone of Johnson's game.

And the American, who won three tournaments in 2016 and recorded top-10 finishes in 15 of his 23 starts, was excited about his chances despite making his debut in the Middle East.

"I've played the front nine yesterday, so I like the front nine. I feel like it's set up well for me. We'll just have to see. But I feel like the game is in pretty good shape right now, so I'm looking forward to playing here," said the 32-year-old.

"I feel like it's pretty straightforward. You've got to drive it straight. One of the keys obviously is hitting it straight and I feel like I'm driving it pretty well right now, so hopefully, we'll have a good week."

Hoping to make it difficult for the American is Stenson, who was voted the Swedish Male Athlete of the Year on Monday for his sensational 2016, in which he won the British Open and the Race to Dubai, and was silver medallist in the Olympics.

Stenson has won the other two legs of the Desert Swing - the Dubai Desert Classic and Qatar Masters.

And even though he owns the course record in Abu Dhabi - 10-under par 62 in the third round of the inaugural tournament in 2006 - he is yet to get his hands on the Falcon Trophy.

"I've had my chances here and its not a secret how much I want to win this tournament. But for some reason or the other, I haven't showed up here fully switched on. Either there's been much to do over the break, or I have had some injury," said Stenson.

"This year, we did skiing in Utah with the kids. I'm not sure if that helped my golf too much. I prefer to keep my body a bit straighter when we're playing golf than skiing.

"But I've aired the clubs for the last week in Orlando before I headed out. It was still getting airborne. It was going forward, and I managed to get some good putting sessions in, as well. Given that I haven't done that much, it still felt pretty good."

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