Three of golf's most popular guys, Tiger, Rory and Phil, are teeing it up this week, albeit on opposite sides of the globe. So while we are getting blurry-eyed from watching too much golf, what are the big three thinking as they head into the new season, and what should we watch for from them?
The biggest story this week is Rory McIlroy's switch to Nike equipment. It will be fascinating to see how he plays with the new sticks, and the week could easily foretell the year ahead. If McIlroy starts missing big with the new driver, question marks will appear in his head and in headlines. If the putter doesn't love him, then, should he have switched? It's practically a soap opera.
Tiger Woods started the season without the spotlight on him for a change. That's because he was slightly under the radar due to the McIlroy equipment announcement.
Phil Mickelson was lowest key of all, and is currently fighting some kind of illness—perhaps the flu that's been going around—but so far, he is set to tee it up at the Humana.
When asked about starting his year in the Middle East, McIlroy said one reason he started there is the climate.
"I always thought it was a perfect place to start the year, because I would always come to Dubai just after the new year and start to practice. The weather is always good, and the facilities are great," he explained. "You play three great golf courses, especially here and Dubai are really good golf courses."
When asked what his expectations are with the new Nike equipment, he had answers that actually made sense.
"Everything's been going really well in practice and even when I'm on the course," he said prior to the event. "Hopefully that continues when I get a scorecard in my hand."
Regarding the equipment, McIlroy has experienced some noticeable differences.
"This (new) ball that I'm playing, I found it was much more stable in the wind. It didn't climb on me just as much," he said. "I spin the ball quite a lot, and I sort of need a ball that doesn't spin that much, especially when it's windy. It looks like it might be a bit breezy this week so that can help me."
The tournament conditions are different than practice, though. He said his tee ball distance is longer with his new driver, and that extends to other clubs.
"I'm probably getting one or two miles an hour more ball speed with the irons, too," he added. "You hit balls on the range, and you know how far you're hitting it, but I guess you don't really know in tournament play, because it feels like you hit it a little further in a tournament, because the adrenaline is there and you're maybe pumped up a little more."
McIlroy said his biggest problem in Abu Dhabi has been Martin Kaymer, who keeps wining the tournament.
"I've always had high expectations of myself, and every time I come into a tournament, I want to feel like I have a chance to win," he added, but he admitted it's definitely going to take good play.
His biggest challenge so far this week is getting enough sleep, because his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki is playing in the Australian Open, and her most recent matches have gone three sets.
"Even if I try to get some sleep and she is playing, I won't be able to sleep, because all I'll be able to do is thinking about how she's doing and checking the phone and check the score. So I may as well watch it and put myself out of my misery a bit."
While Rory's been in the spotlight, literally, all week, Tiger Woods is not about to let the youngster steal all the glory. Woods is always hungry for a victory.
"It feels good to be back out there, and in more of a competitive mode than going out there and obviously playing at home a lot of holes," he said about starting 2013.
He's already looking ahead to the majors
"Three of the four ( venues) I really like. The other one I have never played. Never been to Merion. I'm certainly going to have to check it out this year prior to the Open and see how they are going to set it up," Woods said." From what I hear, I don't think they are going to have the intermediate cut. I think they are just going to have rough and fairway, that's it. I don't know how that's going to look, but certainly the golf course is, from what I hear, not very long, modern standards. But I have to get there and take a look.
"Obviously, I love Augusta.
"Muirfield is a wonderful test; just happened to catch a bad day in 2002 on Saturday.
"OakHill is one of the more difficult golf courses. It's straight out in front of you; it's just very, very difficult. They had the senior, I think a Senior PGA or Senior Open there not too long ago. I know it felt brutal, just like it was when we played the PGA there, as well."
Woods is correct about the rough at the Senior PGA. It was an immovable object. It was so deep, they almost couldn't cut it by the end of the week. They needed to harvest it.
He feels that he's in better physical shape in 2013, and that bodes well for adding to his overflowing trophy case.
"Last year I had one little blip at Doral with my Achilles, but other than that, it was a good year physically. I was excited about being able to play a full schedule. I had not played a full schedule in a very long time, I think 2006, 2007, somewhere in there. So for me it was a big year in that regard, that I was able to play an entire year," he explained, adding that he is excited about this year. "This off‑season was—even though it was brief—it was only six weeks—but it was nice to train and to get speed and get stronger to get the endurance up, all the different levels that I know I can get to and I have been at, which it was nice to get there again."
Woods is playing next week in San Diego at the Farmer's Insurance Open and has a positive frame of mind for both events.
"Over the years, I have generally gotten off to nice starts after breaks," he said. "Last year I had a chance going into the final round, made a few mistakes, but I was there. You know, that certainly gave me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the year, as well, because I've been able to get off to a good start. Hopefully I can do the same this year, but finish a couple spots higher than I did last year."
For a change, Woods got a lot of questions about someone else. He had to field questions about Rory McIlroy's game, and he handled it.
"I think that if you look at the way he hits it, he drives the ball beautifully, and beautiful iron player and when he's got that putter rolling, he makes a lot of putts. Granted, what 20‑something‑year‑old doesn't make a lot of putts," he said. "So he's certainly proven that he can make big putts. He's won a couple major championships by large margins, so he has all the tools, and he's only going to refine them. He's only going to get better at it, and it will be good to see."
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.
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