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Abu Dhabi steals top players from Torrey Pines

Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood

The PGA Tour makes its annual stop this week at Torrey Pines, which in 2008 became the first true municipal course to the site of the U.S. Open, and the focus of golf world will be on ... Abu Dhabi?

The Farmers Insurance Open, a staple on the U.S. circuit since it was first played in 1952 as the San Diego Open, is taking a backseat to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this week.

European Tour events are allowed to offer appearance fees, and the folks in Abu Dhabi have lured the top four players in the World Golf Rankings as well as Tiger Woods, Charl Schwartzel, Graeme McDowell, Jason Day, K.J. Choi, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia.

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Three of the four reigning major champions will be in the Middle East.

"This will be the first time in 2012 you'll see a field of this quality, so it's the first chance to see how we are matching up in the new year," said Lee Westwood, who was No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings at this time last year and wants to take that spot back from Luke Donald -- although Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer might have something to say about that.

"It's always rewarding to see hard work paying off (he claimed two victories late last year), and it certainly did before winter. I'm putting better, hitting it better, managing my game well.

"Every aspect of it seems to be improving. Hopefully I'll keep up this form and confidence and head into Abu Dhabi and a new season with real impetus."

Most weeks throughout the long season, golfers can make more money, earn more world championship points and play in better fields in the tournaments on the PGA Tour.

Those are some of the reasons McIlroy and Westwood have re-upped with the U.S. circuit this season.

Or, as Ernie Els said last year: "The PGA Tour is still the best tour in the world, and that's just the way it is."

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The Farmers won't be hurting for star power, either, with local favorite Phil Mickelson leading a field that includes Els, defending champion Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, PGA champion Keegan Bradley, Vijay Singh, Geoff Ogilvy and Justin Rose.

However, the biggest disappointment for Southern Californians is that Woods, who has won seven times at Torrey Pines, including the 2008 U.S. Open, has defected to Abu Dhabi.

"I love playing (at Torrey Pines), but I also like playing in the desert as well," said Woods, who will make his 2012 debut on the PGA Tour in two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. "And why not? I have never been to Abu Dhabi, and this is the first time, so I decided to mix it up a little bit.

" ... I've heard a lot about Abu Dhabi and the championship, which is a favorite among many of the players who return each year. ... I've always enjoyed playing in HSBC events around the world, so I have been interested in including the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in my schedule for some time. I am also intrigued to spend time in Abu Dhabi.

"Visiting new places is one of the things I really enjoy about being a professional golfer."

It's nothing new for Woods to start his season in the Middle East. He has played six times in the Dubai Desert Classic, winning the tournament at Emirates Golf Club in 2006 and 2008.

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Tiger has had business interests in Dubai, but much of that once abundant sponsorship money has dried up, and it seems that the golf course he was building there might never be finished.

Abu Dhabi was only too happy to nab him.

"The giants of golf are coming to Abu Dhabi," said Faisal Al Sheikh, events manager for the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. "Traditionally, we have prioritized depth of field at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and that has not changed for our seventh year. It is safe to say we are amassing the finest field to ever contest a Middle East tournament.

"We are also delighted to welcome Tiger Woods to the tournament for the first time. He has been a longtime supporter of our HSBC golf tournaments around the world, and we are looking forward to seeing how he tackles the challenging National Course."

Of course, it's nothing like Torrey Pines, so Woods might want to play a practice round with Kaymer, who has won the tournament three of the last four years.


PGA TOUR: Farmers Insurance Open

COURSES: Torrey Pines, South Course (7,698 yards, par 72) and North Course (7,045 yards, par 72).

PURSE: $6 million. Winner's share: $1,044,000.

TELEVISION: Golf Channel (Thursday, 3-6 p.m., 8:30-11:30 p.m.; Friday, 12:30-3:30 a.m., 3-6 p.m., 8:30-11:30 p.m.; Saturday, 12:30-3:30 a.m., 1-2:30 p.m., 9:30-11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1-2:30 p.m., 9:30-11:30 p.m.) and CBS (Saturday, 3-6 p.m.; Sunday, 3-6:30 p.m.).

OH CANADA: After taking a week off, Graham DeLaet joins David Hearn and Stephen Ames in the field this week.

NOTES: Bubba Watson won the first of his two 2011 titles last year, birdieing the final hole for a one-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson. ... Mickelson, the 1993, 2000 and 2001 winner, is making his 22nd consecutive appearance in his hometown event. ... Also in the field Dustin Johnson, Ernie Els, 2010 champion Ben Crane, 2009 winner Nick Watney, Geoff Ogilvy, Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim. Johnson, coming off arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in November, withdrew last week during the second round of the Humana Challenge, citing back pain. ... J.B. Holmes is making his first start since having brain surgery in September. He had structural defects in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance. ...


EUROPEAN TOUR: Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

COURSE: Abu Dhabi Golf Club (7,510 yards, par 72).

PURSE: $2.7 million. Winner's share: $450,000.

TELEVISION: Golf Channel (Thursday-Friday, 4-8 a.m., 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6:30-8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 4 a.m.-noon, 3-7 p.m., 6:30-9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 a.m.-noon, 3-7 p.m., 7-9:30 p.m.).

NOTES: Martin Kaymer successfully defended his title, winning the event for the third time in four years. The German star posted four sub-70 rounds for an eight-stroke victory over Rory McIlroy. ...South Africa's Branden Grace will be going for third consecutive win to start the European Tour season after winning the Volvo Golf Champions last week and the Joburg Open the previous week. ....Tiger Woods, who is reportedly being paid $1.5-million to come to Abu Dhabi, is making his first start of the season. He's coming off a victory Dec. 4 in his own 18-man Chevron World Challenge. ... Top-ranked Luke Donald also is in the field along with No. 2 Lee Westwood, No. 3 McIlroy, No. 4 Kaymer, No. 8 Charl Schwartzel, No. 10 Jason Day, Darren Clarke, K.J. Choi, two-time Abu Dhabi winner Paul Casey, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Matteo Manassero.


EUROPEAN CHALLENGE TOUR: The Gujarat Kensville Challenge, Ahmedabad, India

NOTES: Former No. 1 world ranked amateur Peter Uihlein makes his professional debut since relinquishing his amateur status at the end of last year. ...Andrew Parr of London, Ont., makes his Challenge Tour debut as well. He is coming off a 13th place showing in his first ever European Tour event two weeks ago at the Joburg Open.

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