Dubai. While world No. 1 Brooks Koepka is billed as the star attraction at this year’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, there is no doubt as to who the fans’ favourite will be over the next four days in the UAE capital.
Only 12 months ago, Irishman Shane Lowry battled his way to claim the Flacon Trophy at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and kick-start a memorable year. It almost didn’t happen as he stumbled on during the final round, throwing a way a comfortable lead before fighting his way back from four strokes down to edge out South Africa’s Richard Sterne to claim his first title in three years.
That determination signalled the start to a stellar season in which the ever-smiling Lowry also propelled himself to the top of the sport and became a poster boy for aspiring golfers everywhere by winning the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland by six strokes.
The world No. 19 was languishing near treble figures in the rankings last January, but now he has an eye on breaking into the top 10 as he bids for more silverware this campaign — starting in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s amazing the difference a year can make,” said Lowry on Wednesday. “Coming into this event last year, I was sort of maybe 80th in the world or something I had not had great form and didn’t know what 2019 was going to bring. I just did what I do, and tried my best and went out and gave it 100 per cent the whole year. Very fortunately, it was obviously my best year to date.
“It was obviously really nice to get off to an unbelievable start here, winning one of the biggest events on Tour.
“This course, this tournament, against this field every year is a really, really difficult tournament to win, and it obviously kick-started an unbelievable season.”
Along with targeting the top 10 in the world, Lowry also has an ambition of making it to the European Ryder Cup team and possibly an Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.
“I’ve set little goals,” he said. “Obviously I have goals in my head. I don’t write them down. I don’t do any of that. So I have it in my head what I want to achieve this year, and like the main thing for me is make that Ryder Cup Team, and I’ve kind of set my schedule out, I’ve set everything out to do that.
“But I think I need to just bring it back to basics and back to what I do best, and that’s just being the best version of myself every day, and that’s all I can do.
“I’m also off to Japan for the Olympics and it’s just it is incredibly busy. But the Olympics is going to be exciting. I’ve never played, so, hopefully, I can go there this year. I think for me, we don’t win too many gold medals in Ireland, so if you’re able to bring one back to Ireland, I think that would be very, very special.”
Tommy Fleetwood, who finished second in Portrush to Lowry, is another man on a mission this week as he bids to make it three HSBC Championship titles in four years on one of his favourite courses.
“The first few years I came here, I actually struggled,” he confessed. “I think I missed the cut for the first four years I played it.
“But I think as an event when so many people are starting the year out, it is pretty much the best way to start the year. I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve always think it throws you in at the deep end, a really tough test. If you’ve been home for a few months and you come out here, you feel great. So I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of really good years here, and they catapulted me on for the rest of the year.
“I had been in a slump for most of 2015 and 2016 and I felt like by the end of 2016, I was playing really well. In 2017, it just so happened I won this one, and I think it just proved to myself that I was sort of back where I wanted to be and I think that gave me a lot of confidence.”
Selected first round tee times
7.20am: J Winther, R Fisher, J Walters
7.30am: D Burmester, N Bertasio, O Fisher
7.40am: R Paratore, K Samooja, R Jacquelin
7.50am: A Sullivan, J Scrivener, S Jamieson
8am: C Wood, R McEvoy, S Hend
8.10am: G Bhullar, G Green, J Morrison
8.40am: D Horsey, M Pavon, V Dubuisson
11.45am: T Lewis, S Norris, T Pieters
11.55am: D Willett, V Perez, M Wallace
12.05pm: B DeChambeau, M Fitzpatrick, B Grace
12.15pm: L Westwood, E Pepperell, I Poulter
12.25pm: P Larrazábal, H Li, E Van Rooyen
12.35pm: J Hill, M Schwab, C Schwartzel
1.15pm: R Fox, A Quiros, T Aiken
1.25pm: M Southgate, A Johnston, S Horsfield
7.30am: S Garcia, P Cantlay, B Wiesberger
7.40am: B Koepka, T Fleetwood, S Lowry
7.50am: R Cabrera Bello, L Oosthuizen, M Kaymer
8am: P Harrington, R Hojgaard, F Laporta
8.10am: T Bjorn, N Colsaerts, B Hebert
8.50am: D Drysdale, A Arnaus, H Porteous
11.45am: S Sharma, D Lipsky, A Pavan
12.05pm: G Forrest, C Hill, D Law
12.35pm: G Coetzee, J Lagergren, K Aphibarnrat
12.45pm: M Kieffer, R Ramsay, T Jaidee
1.15pm: E Molinari, J Singh Brar, S Kjeldsen
1.25pm: G Storm, R Bland, A Skaik