The DP World Tour kicks off its year this week in Abu Dhabi, and it has a field to rival the PGA Tour's American Express event at the very top. Though the overall strength of field is higher in California, three of the top eight players in the world -- No. 2 Collin Morikawa, No. 7 Viktor Hovland and No. 8 Rory McIlroy -- will tee it up in Abu Dhabi. It will McIlroy's first appearance in 2022, while both Hovland and Morikawa played at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in the first full week of the new year.
One big change for the tournament is that it moved from the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where it has been played for the last 16 years, to Yas Links Abu Dhabi on a golf course that ranks among the very best in the world.
Designed by American Kyle Phillips, whose breakthrough course was No. 27 Kingsbarns in Scotland, Yas Links is part of a massive Arabian Gulf entertainment complex that includes a Formula 1 racetrack, a Ferrari World amusement park and a second 18 soon to begin construction. As the name suggests, Phillips fashioned this as a warm-weather links, using 2 million cubic yards of sand dredged from an adjacent marina to give the layout the shape and contour, then covering everything with salt-tolerant Paspalum turf. Eight holes play along a vast intracoastal waterway that leads to the Persian Sea, including holes 14 through 18, a most invigorating stretch.
It looks … pretty awesome.
In addition to the golf course, there are four other things I'll be watching for as an underrated 2022 Abu Dhabi Championship gets underway this week.
1. Rory McIlroy's driver
If you ask 100 golf fans what makes McIlroy play poorly (during those stretches where he plays poorly), you're unlikely to get many answers that his driver is the problem. The putter or the wedges or his mental game, sure, but driver? I'm not sure many folks would run straight there. And yet, driver is where he experiences the greatest variance. In 2014, when he won two majors and three times in a row to end the season, he gained just over 1.5 strokes off the tee per round. This is a preposterous number. Last season, he gained .75 per round, which is also a lot but half of where he was at during his peak winning years. So the point is not that he struggled off the tee last year compared to everyone else, but rather that he struggled compared to himself.
His variance in approach play is much smaller. This is intriguing, and one thing that seems to affect his strokes gained off the tee is how accurate he is with the driver. He's had great years with driver, even when he wasn't hitting his ceiling in terms of distance, but five of his six best seasons in strokes gained off the tee coincide with better-than-average accuracy seasons (McIlroy lives right around average when it comes to accuracy). He addressed this very thing on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi.
"I think the biggest thing for guys that at the level that we're at is I want to hit over 60% of my fairways," said McIlroy. "I can certainly control if I hit 60% of the fairways."
He mentioned a variety of other metrics within his game, but he kept returning to the fairways hit. For reference, he hit 57% last season, which was T145 on the PGA Tour.
"If I can hit the ball in the fairway 60% of the time with how far that I hit it, I'm going to create a lot of opportunities for myself. And the more opportunities you give yourself, you know, the putts will … some weeks will fall, some weeks they won't, but I think over the last few years I've certainly become a more consistent putter and I certainly hole what I feel is my fair share."
This last part is true. McIlroy has gained strokes putting in each of his last three seasons. This will be an interesting sub-storyline to follow throughout the rest of 2022 as McIlroy tries to reassert himself as the most prolific driver on the planet.
2. Collin Morikawa's quest for No. 1
Morikawa can become No. 1 in the world this weekend with a win -- depending on what Jon Rahm does at the American Express. At 24, he would be the 25th golfer ever to become No. 1 and the fourth-youngest behind Tiger Woods (21), Jordan Spieth (22) and Rory McIlroy (22). Of course, Rahm might also give him the Heisman stiff-arm, win his next three and not give up No. 1 for another three years. If Morikawa breaks through, though, it would touch off an impossible run. This time three years ago, he was playing his senior year at Cal. Now? He could be the No. 1-ranked golfer on earth.
3. Viktor Hovland's streak
Hovland shows up the second-highest ranked player in the field behind Morikawa. He won his last two starts of 2021 at the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba and the Hero World Challenge, and more than slashed his world ranking in half. He started last year at No. 14 and was No. 15 going into Mayakoba. He's now No. 7 and could also start contending for No. 1 if he rips off a few more Ws leading into the Masters.
"Obviously couldn't have finished the year better than I did last year," said Hovland. "I put the clubs away for a few weeks and started the year in Hawaii where I didn't have the best of prep and was pretty rusty. Starting to feel like I'm getting the rust off and feel like I'm getting the game back to where it was before the break."
4. England's best in show
Who will be the best English golfer in the world this year? That's a fascinating question with its highest-ranked player -- Tyrrell Hatton -- currently down in the dumps and no candidates behind him that truly stand out. Will it be Matt Fitzpatrick, who has one top 10 in 26 major starts? Paul Casey, who turns 45 in July? Lee Westwood, who turns 49 in April? Tommy Fleetwood, who is currently outside the top 40 for the first time since the start of 2017? The aging Justin Rose, Richard Bland or Ian Poulter? Those are currently your eight highest-ranked Englishmen going into 2022, many of whom are in the field this week at Abu Dhabi. Perhaps Matt Wallace, Sam Horsfield or Danny Willett will step up behind them, but English golf, at least going into the year, looks a bit more grim than it has in quite a while.