I am making my competitive return for 2008 in Abu Dhabi, as I did last year when I found it very helpful as regards my preparation for the year ahead. Up to last year I have taken a long winter break, anything up to nine weeks, but by breaking it up I felt that I was much more ready to play than in previous years. With this in mind I am back for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship; like last year I came out a few days early with my family and spent some time in Dubai, which is only an hour up the road. Those few days were a mix of relaxing and practicing.
I have only played one tournament in the last seven weeks; so as is the norm for me when I have this sort of time off I have been doing quite a bit of technical practice. It has been going well but the problem is that when I get on the golf course I am not quite sure what I am doing as I am still thinking about technique rather than the practice trying to get myself to focus on my target. When I was here last year I was at the end of my pre-season preparation whereas this year I am really just in the middle of it. I have been working a lot on my swing and making a few adjustments and while they are improving they are not quite there yet. This week will give me an idea as to how the work has gone as I will have to forget about the technical work when I on the course.
I arrived in the Gulf last Thursday and since I have been here the weather has been unusually bad; there has been rain everyday. I was able to play golf on Saturday and some on Sunday but it was cut short due to bad weather. However, I did manage to get some practice done in between the showers. I had originally planned to come to Abu Dhabi on Monday and play a practice round but the roads were closed from Dubai to Abu Dhabi on Monday as the U.S. President, George Bush, was traveling in the opposite direction to me. He is here touring around the Gulf States and as a result security is extremely high. In fact, the Government of Dubai declared Monday a public holiday in his honour.
I got to the course on Tuesday morning and was looking forward to playing the course but again the weather thwarted me as I was only able to play five holes due to heavy rain and thunder. Wednesday was better for me as I got to play the full 18 holes in the pro-am as I was an afternoon starter; the morning starters in the pro-am only played nine holes. I am always happy to play the pro-am but this week I was even more so as it was my only practice round. The fact that I played here last year is a big advantage as most people have struggled to get practice rounds in. However, in the pro-am I struggled to forget what I was working on and found myself thinking too much whilst over shots.
This is a par 72 that measures over 7,400 yards. It didn’t play its length last year as it was very warm and the ball was traveling a bit further however this year it is playing long as there has been so much rain. They have also grown the rough up since last year; it is almost like US Open rough so there is a definite premium on hitting fairways this week. One of the main features of this course is the fact that it tends to play a couple of shots tougher in the afternoon than it does in the morning due to the wind. Most of the scoring is done in the morning and then you are trying to shot a reasonable score in the afternoon. The holes that I see as being the tough ones are the 9th, 17th and 18th. If you can play these well then you are making up ground on the field.
The ninth is a 454 yard par four with water down the left off the tee. It doesn’t look like it really comes into play but anything going left will end up in it and down the right there is trees and waste bunkers and then some more water. I find this a very daunting hole and tend to hit three wood off the tee as I know that it won’t reach the water. After a three wood I can be hitting anything from a 6 iron to my hybrid.
The 17th is over water from the tee, it measures 470 yards and normally plays into the wind. There is a bunker on the left off the tee and then water on the right; the key is to get a good drive away. You are left with a long to medium iron for your second; it is not an easy par if you need it on Sunday!
The 18th is a par five that is reachable for the bigger hitters. Again you are driving over water and it has a bunker up the left to catch an errant drive. It takes a good drive to get yourself in position to go for the green in two, but if you are pushing then it is very easy to make a mess of this hole. It feels like you should be making birdies here but if you are trying too hard to make one it is easy to make a six or seven.
I am here after three weeks off and only one event in the last seven weeks. I would like to say that I am ready and feeling very confident but I am not. I have been practicing a lot and really I am only in the middle of my winter programme. I am never that confident when I come out at the start of any season; it normally takes me a few weeks to play my way into some form but I don’t see this year being any different. I don’t have great expectation for this week as I know that I am not fully prepared for the tournament. The first round of the year is probably one of the worst of the year as you are never sure what to expect. However, I will be trying to go through my routine on every shot and not think about my technical practice. Fingers crossed!
My first tournament of the year went reasonably well, it started slow but the weekend was a big improvement. I wasn’t expecting much, as I had been doing a lot of technical work during my weeks off. It was a very worthwhile week as it gave me a good insight into the things that I have to work on before I get back into the full swing of things. I now have two weeks to get myself fully ready for the coming season, starting with the AT&T pro-am.
The Abu Dhabi Golf Championship turned out pretty much as I expected it too; the only thing that I wasn’t expecting was for my neck to act up as it did. It felt a bit stiff on Thursday morning before my usual pre round physio session; after the treatment it felt fine but then as my warm up went on it started to get worse. I started playing, hoping that my neck would free up and be fine but as I got further into the round I knew that it wasn’t getting any better. I called for my physio after nine holes; he treated me in between shots up the tenth, eleventh and twelfth; it definitely loosened me up quite a bit but I was still struggling to hit shots full out.
My first two rounds were fine, I definitely left shots out on the course but after a few weeks off I would expect that. Considering that my neck was also at me, two rounds of level par was a decent return. I should have been better, but I bogeyed the last hole of my second round; I went for the green in two but ended up in the left bunker, leaving me with a 50 yard bunker shot which I thinned over the green and then took three more to get down. The weekend was much better as far as my golf and neck were concerned; I shot three under on Saturday and then four under on Sunday to move into a share of eleventh. I was a little disappointed not to sneak into the top ten in the end; Paul birdied his last hole to knock me out of the top ten. My two rounds over the weekend were quite different; on Saturday I walked off the course knowing that I had left plenty of shots behind me. I had made two bogeys and also missed a couple of short putts; the course was playing much easier and as a result my three under only felt alright. However on Sunday I didn’t play anywhere near as good as the Saturday but I made the most of it. I made a couple of very good saves for par when I was out of position and also holed a few putts from the five to ten feet range for pars. As well as this I hit a few wedge shots nearly stone dead; on my last hole I hit a lovely wedge to two feet to make my last birdie and finish on four under for the day and seven under for the week. I was very happy leaving the course on Sunday as I knew that I had made the most of my round. There is a certain pleasure that you take from the shooting the very best round that you could have shot, I knew leaving on Sunday that I had maximised my score.
Overall I was happy with how the week went. It started slowly and built up. The only annoying thing was the fact that my neck flared up; this is something that I am used to as I normally get it a couple of times a year. It probably came up this week as I had been doing so much practise over the winter and hadn’t seen my physio for a couple of months. I only hope that it will stay in check for the rest of the year. Even with this injury I still managed to get some very good work done during the week, I had my trainer out with me so that we could go through my fitness routines and see how I was progressing. He was very happy with my physical fitness and strength, the neck is as a result of a bulging disc and so there is nothing that anyone can do about it. My trainer has given me more exercises to do that will help strengthen the area around it but ultimately there is no fix for it. Other than my neck though I am in good shape and ready for the year ahead.
From a golfing point of view this week was also a success as it has pin pointed the areas that I need to work on for the next two weeks, to be fully ready for the coming season. Coming here this week I knew that I wasn’t quite match fit, this was one of the reasons for playing here as it showed me what I need to work on and also how the work I have done over the winter break has come on. I was pleased with the progress my swing has made, I still hit a lot of shots like I would have last year but there were also a lot hit the way that I have been working too. This shows me that my practise is working, however I also realise now that I need to stop the technical practise and get more into my routines and do some work on my chipping. The main area that was poor this week was my mental game; my routines were poor and my preparation before playing a shot was not very good. This is exactly what I would have expected as I have done very little work on this area during the winter. So for the next couple of weeks I will be working on getting my routines back to where they were last year and making sure that when I go to hit a shot that I have made up my mind the shot that I am going to hit before I stand over the ball. There are a lot of positives for me to take from this week. Even though I didn’t feel overly comfortable standing over the putts I still was third in putts per green in regulation and sixth in total putts. The thing that I was most pleased with though was my bunker play, I have been struggling with it for the last two years and I finely think that I have turned the corner as it felt so much better this week; I had confidence back in it again.
So all in all it was a good worthwhile week, I would have loved to gotten myself into contention but I knew that that was a big ask coming here. My play improved as the week went on and my neck was also getting better. I can head home for two weeks knowing that the work I have been doing is paying off and with a few areas fresh in my mind to work on. I have two more weeks to go before my season really kicks off but between now and then I have to work very hard on my routines and mental game.
Talk to you all in a couple of weeks time! I'm in the States for the AT&T.