By Benjamin Block
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Three reigning major winners — two of whom are currently top four in the world — and the tournament’s defending champion descended on the southeast portion of the Arabian Peninsula Thursday for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
And it would have been three top-four players in the world had Rory McIlroy participated.
But McIlroy had to withdraw because of a stress fracture to one of his ribs that he suffered in last week’s South African Open. He lamented how it was “bitterly disappointing” and “annoying” that he’d have to miss Abu Dhabi.
Stepping up and overshadowing McIlroy’s absence was world No. 4 and 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson, who shredded the course with an impressive 8-under 64 — his lowest ever opening round at Abu Dhabi.
Among those chasing the towering Swede were defending tournament champion Rickie Fowler and fellow American and 2016 U.S. Open winner Dustin Johnson. However, both finished Thursday’s round unimpressively at even par, eight strokes off Stenson’s lead.
Finishing even further back of Fowler and Johnson, at 2-over par and 10 strokes off the lead, was last year’s surprise Masters champion, Danny Willett. The Englishman acknowledged before his opening round Thursday that after the end of last season, “it was a bit disappointing and definitely time for a break.”
His best PGA Tour finish last year after winning the green jacket was a tie for 37th place in the U.S. Open. Despite trending downward since claiming his first major, the world’s No. 12 player still dons a target on his back. This will especially be the case when he returns to Augusta to defend his title.
But let’s also take a more in-depth look at McIlroy, Stenson, Johnson and Fowler.
It seems like McIlroy is taking extra precaution with his rib fracture, which makes sense. The last thing he wants is to jeopardize another chance at winning the Masters. Even though he’s still just the ripe old age of 27, it remains the one major to elude his grasp. And winning the green jacket — something he badly wants — would make him just the sixth golfer to achieve the career grand slam.
Stenson is coming off of what he described as “the best year of my career.” Perhaps that’s an easy concession for him, considering that he outplayed a surging Phil Mickelson by a margin of three strokes to capture his first major championship, at Royal Troon. The putter finally held up for Stenson, who is tied for 168th on tour in that category. If the flat stick gets hot again in 2017, there aren’t many on tour who can match his length off the tee and approach game into the greens.
Johnson, who turned pro in 2007, finally won his first major after knocking on that door several times.
“I look at last year as obviously a great year,” Johnson said of a breakout 2016.
Considering that the 6-foot-4 behemoth won three times last season, and had 15 top-10s, he doesn’t want to let any opportunities slip away in 2017.
“I had a lot of chances to win quite a few more,” an unsatisfied Johnson said about last year. Like Stenson, if Johnson can get the putter going for four consecutive days when the majors come around, look out for major No. 2.
Entering his ninth year on tour and as the 14th best player in the world, 2017 is pivotal for Fowler. Despite making the FedExCup playoffs for the seventh consecutive year last season, playing in the Olympics and representing the United States Ryder Cup team, Fowler won zero times on the PGA Tour in 2016. Counterparts like Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed are gradually distancing themselves from him, as they are beginning to stack up wins and majors.
A win on tour before the Masters could set up Fowler for a big year. One of his career victories was in 2015 at The Players Championship, which is considered to be like a fifth major. Fowler needs to find a way to get a victory early this season, and he could be a threat to win any of the four majors.
The display that these five players — sans a rehabbing McIlroy — put on in Abu Dhabi is likely to be an indication of what to expect from them the remainder of this season.
Follow Benjamin on Twitter at @benjaminblock21