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Preview: Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship


Rory McIlroy ready for a fresh start in 2014

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Rory McIlroy celebrated his two wins of 2013 in Sydney - a victory in the Australian Open, engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. Now he returns to golf in the place where his season first began to unravel.

McIlroy, as much as any other player, is eager for a new start.

''I'm not going to sit here and say that all the stuff going on off the golf course wasn't a distraction and say that it didn't affect me,'' McIlroy said Tuesday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. ''Of course it did. You're thinking of other things when you really shouldn't have to.''

He was under severe scrutiny for changing all his equipment at once under a lucrative deal with Nike. The first time played on the weekend was three months into the year at a tournament that had no cut. He walked off one course out of frustration. And he didn't win until beating Adam Scott on the final hole of the Australian Open.

The upside for McIlroy?

If he's going to have a year where most of the news is bad, better to get it out of the way when he's 24.

''It's great that I've went through it at this stage in my career and not 15 years down the line,'' he said.

McIlroy was No. 1 in the world when he played Abu Dhabi last year, the start of the European Tour's swing through the Persian Gulf. Now he's No. 7, making him the third-ranked player in Abu Dhabi behind Henrik Stenson (No. 3) and Phil Mickelson (No. 5).

Mickelson is playing Abu Dhabi for the first time, and he showed up mostly excited about his new driver from Callaway. Mickelson struggled late last year to find the right driver, and now believes he has one that could lead to the best year of his life.

That season could be made with a sixth major, one in particular - the U.S. Open, the final piece of the career Grand Slam.

''Any major championship win would make the year special and memorable,'' said Mickelson, who turns 44 this year. ''And I do believe that I'll win a U.S. Open. I don't know if it will be at Pinehurst this year - very well could be, or in the future. But I play well in the tournament too often to not believe or be confident in my ability to close the tournament out. But any major championship would make 2014 a remarkable year.''

McIlroy already can claim a remarkable year based on the first day of the year. That's when he was on a boat in the Sydney Harbor, dropped to a knee and proposed to Wozniacki, his girlfriend of more than two years. Oddly, that was one of the distractions a year ago. Irish papers had them splitting up at least twice.

The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland approached Wozniacki's parents to ask their permission to marry her.

''I don't think there can be a bigger decision you have to make than asking someone to marry you,'' he said. ''If anything, it will only help to have that stability and known everything in that regard in my life is set.

''So off the golf course, I'm in a great place and I am happy,'' he said. ''I'm feeling good about where I am mentally. I feel good with everything that's going on off the golf course, and it's hopefully shaping up to be a good year.''

Copyright 2015 by STATS LLC. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC is strictly prohibited.

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Abu Dhabi field
Thomas AikenAhmed Al MusharrekhKiradech Aphibarnrat
Matthew BaldwinSeve BensonGaganjeet Bhullar
Thomas BjornRichard BlandKristoffer Broberg
Rafael Cabrera-BelloFrancois CalmelsMichael Campbell
Jorge CampilloAlejandro CanizaresJohan Carlsson
Magnus A. CarlssonPaul CaseyDarren Clarke
George CoetzeeMarco CrespiEduardo De La Riva
Carlos Del MoralRobert DinwiddieChris Doak
Luke DonaldJamie DonaldsonSimon Dyson
Nacho ElviraNiclas FasthDarren Fichardt
Oliver FisherRoss FisherTommy Fleetwood
Mark FosterMarcus FraserStephen Gallacher
Sergio GarciaRicardo GonzalezBranden Grace
Richard GreenEmiliano GrilloJB Hansen
Soren HansenPeter HansonPadraig Harrington
Tyrrell HattonGregory HavretMichael Hoey
David HorseyDavid HowellWen-Yi Huang
Daan HuizingMikko IlonenRaphael Jacquelin
Thongchai JaideeYeon-jin JeongMiguel Angel Jimenez
Shiv KapurRobert KarlssonMartin Kaymer
Maximilian KiefferSihwan KimSoren Kjeldsen
Brooks KoepkaJbe' KrugerPablo Larrazabal
Paul LawriePeter LawrieCraig Lee
Thomas LevetAlexander LevyTom Lewis
Jose-Filipe LimaShane LowryJoost Luiten
Morten MadsenMatteo ManasseroGareth Maybin
Paul McGinleyDamien McGraneRory McIlroy
Jamie McLearyPhil MickelsonEdoardo Molinari
Colin MontgomerieGarth MulroyMatthew Nixon
Jose Maria OlazabalThorbjorn OlesenWade Ormsby
Adrian OtaeguiHennie OttoJohn Parry
Andrea PavanEddie PepperellKevin Phelan
Thomas PietersJulien QuesneAlvaro Quiros
Victor RiuRobert RockBrett Rumford
Adrien SaddierRicardo SantosMarcel Siem
Jeev Milkha SinghLee SlatteryGary Stal
Henrik StensonBrandon StoneGraeme Storm
Andy SullivanSimon ThorntonPeter Uihlein
Dawie Van Der WaltAnthony WallJustin Walters
Paul WaringMarc WarrenRomain Wattel
Steve WebsterPeter WhitefordBernd Wiesberger
Danny WillettChris WoodFabrizio Zanotti
Strength of field
World RankPlayersNo. in Field
TOP 10Rory McIlroy (1),Henrik Stenson (2),Sergio Garcia (5)3
TOP 25Phil Mickelson (11),Martin Kaymer (12),Jamie Donaldson (23)3
TOP 50Joost Luiten (28),Thomas Bjorn (32),Brooks Koepka (35),Stephen Gallacher (36),Luke Donald (37),Miguel Angel Jimenez (41),Thongchai Jaidee (43),Mikko Ilonen (44),Shane Lowry (47)9
TOP 100Alexander Levy (53),Tommy Fleetwood (60),Marcel Siem (65),Marc Warren (68),Pablo Larrazabal (69),Bernd Wiesberger (72),Paul Casey (74),George Coetzee (77),Thorbjorn Olesen (78),Danny Willett (83),Ross Fisher (86),Rafael Cabrera-Bello (87),Romain Wattel (96),Robert Karlsson (97),Edoardo Molinari (99)15