How do top stars stack up in desert?

January, 14, 2014

In existence for less than a decade, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship has become a marquee early-season event in the golf world. Reported multimillion-dollar appearance fees to summon the likes of Tiger Woods will do that.

Trivia question

This is the ninth annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Who won the inaugural edition in 2006? (Answer below)

There is no Woods in the field this week competing for one of the coolest trophies in golf, but a fantastic collection of golfers features eight major champions and four players ranked among the top 10 in the world.

Defending champion Jamie Donaldson is in the top 25 in the world rankings for the first time in his career, but we at Numbers Game examine three of the biggest names in the sport in this week's Three on the Tee:

Henrik Stenson: At the end of 2011, Henrik Stenson was ranked 191st in the world. He was coming off a year in which, in events weighted by the OWGR, he had 11 missed cuts, just one top-10 finish and no victories. Two years later, he is ranked No. 3 and is in position to give Woods a run for his money as the world's top-ranked player.

In his past 14 worldwide starts counted by the world ranking, Stenson has three wins, an incredible eight top-three finishes (including two in the most recent two majors) and 10 top-10s. For comparison's sake, in Woods' past 14 starts, he has three wins, six top-three finishes and eight top-10s.

Stenson finished second to Sergio Garcia in his last start -- at the Thailand Golf Championship in mid-December. The 37-year-old Swede has two runner-up finishes in his career at Abu Dhabi, but no top-10s since 2008.

Phil Mickelson: Lefty played his college golf at Arizona State, nearly shot 59 last year in Scottsdale and is a three-time winner of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. So you would think desert conditions in Abu Dhabi could be a good fit to get his 2014 started, right? Mickelson has just one start in this event, and he finished T-37 in 2011.

Lefty earned a top-10 only once in eight starts after his historic victory at the Open Championship last summer. The previous time Mickelson won his first worldwide start of a calendar year was in 2004 at the Bob Hope Classic.

For many golf fans, though, Mickelson's year revolves around the U.S. Open, June 12-15 at Pinehurst, N.C. He will have the chance to complete the modern career Grand Slam, something only five players have accomplished: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods.

Rory McIlroy: With the world watching his every step in 2013, then-world-No. 1 Rory McIlroy failed to register a victory anywhere until the Australian Open in December. That included just two rounds under par in the first three majors of the season and resulted in T-25, T-41, missed cut finishes.

Still just 24 years old, and with the spotlight dimmed a bit entering this year, McIlroy could be poised for a return to top form in 2014. He finished sixth or better in four of his last six tournaments of 2013, accumulating a combined score of 52 under par in that stretch. The world's seventh-ranked player, who got engaged to Caroline Wozniacki, recently said his ball speed (with his driver) has topped 180 mph for the first time in his career.

The magnitude of what McIlroy has accomplished at such a young age cannot be understated. He will turn 25 between this year's Masters and U.S. Open, yet he already has two major titles to his name. Since 1930, only three other players have won multiple majors before age 25: Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Woods.

Meanwhile, back stateside, birdies should be easy to come by at the Humana Challenge. In 2013, the three easiest courses on the PGA Tour were La Quinta CC, PGA West Palmer and PGA West Nicklaus -- the three tracks played at this event. Each of the past six winners has finished at least 22 strokes under par, even after the format switched from 90 holes to 72 in 2012.

In fact, since 2008, each course hosting this event (six courses in all during the stretch) has ranked among the 10 easiest on the PGA Tour in that given season. The statistic "adjusted scoring average" was created for tournaments like this.

Trivia answer

Question: This is the ninth annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Who won the inaugural edition in 2006?

Answer: Chris DiMarco

The propensity for low scores could mean another great finish. Each of the past four years, this tournament has been decided by 2 or fewer strokes, with two playoffs determining the winner in that span.

Big names to watch for include Brandt Snedeker, who enters with an active streak of 17 straight sub-par rounds in this tournament (and top-10 finishes in 2010 and 2012), and Keegan Bradley, who finished T-7 in his only career start here in 2011.