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Stephen Gallacher column: European Tour line-up well above par despite coronavirus

Rory McIlroy.
Rory McIlroy.

The European Tour’s first event of 2021 starts today and it feels a bit like a footballer starting the season with a big Champions League match.

Normally the players would have the Hong Kong Open or a couple of events in South Africa to help get their game back in shape after the Christmas break, but we’re going straight in at the deep end this week.

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is one of only four Rolex Series events on the schedule this season.

It has an enhanced prize fund of $8,000,000 and lots of Race to Dubai points on offer.

A good finish this week would be the perfect way to start the season, which was why I came across a bit early to practise and play some rounds of golf.

There is no surprise the event has attracted a very strong field, with players such as Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood, Shane Lowry and Justin Rose all teeing up.

Tommy Fleetwood.

This is a massive tournament, but my game is feeling pretty good and I’m encouraged by the equipment testing I did last week.

The coronavirus protocols over here are very strict, but the course is fantastic.

It looks like the restrictions are here to stay for a while so it is nice to be able to get back playing. It is so important everyone adheres to the protocols as we all want to keep playing events this season.

We had to get tested to get into Abu Dhabi and then another test at the course, so it is very stringent. The wait for the results after you get tested is a nightmare.

It is an anxious time for every player, no matter how careful you have been.

I’m sure Rory will be among the favourites this week, but there are plenty who will fancy their chances.

It will suit a big-hitter because the par fives are long, but a player with that extra 15 or 20 yards can reach the green in two.

Over the years, the rough has been quite penal, which has favoured the straighter hitters, but the rough is not as thick this year.

That will favour the players who can hit it long off the tee, especially at the doglegs, where they will be able to take an aggressive line.

It is the resumption of the Ryder Cup qualification process and I was talking to the European captain Padraig Harrington yesterday.

He is looking forward to getting going and it’s interesting that he has been paired with Robert MacIntyre and Victor Perez this week. He is clearly starting his scouting mission.

They are two players who are capable of making the team and Padraig will be looking to get to know them both a bit better to learn more about their game and temperament.

It’s a great opportunity for Robert, because he will know the European captain is having a look at him.

It shows he is on the right track and it is a nice pressure to have.

I remember when I was pushing for the 2014 Ryder Cup team, I ended up playing some rounds with the European captain Paul McGinley and a couple of the vice-captains.

It made me feel like I was doing something right, because the captain had 130 guys to choose from and he was considering me for the team.

Robert was talking earlier this week about his ambitions for 2021 and I liked what I heard.

He has worked hard to get on to the cusp of the top 50, but his targets are higher than simply being in the top 50. He wants to make the Ryder Cup team and become the best player possible.

Golf: Robert MacIntyre views world top 50 as stepping stone as he prepares to start huge season

He feels reaching the top 50 is a stepping stone, because it opens the doors to the majors and the World Golf Championships.

He is absolutely right. It is refreshing to hear him talk like that and he has the ability to achieve his goals.

Hopefully he gets off to a good start in front of the European captain.

Kevin Na pushing for spot on us Ryder Cup side

Another player who may fancy his chances of making the Ryder Cup is Kevin Na.

Despite being a multiple winner on the PGA Tour, the 37-year-old has never played in the American team.

But his victory at the Sony Open at the weekend – his fourth PGA Tour win since 2018 – has given him the platform to make a real push for the United States team at Whistling Straits this September.

He used to receive a bit of criticism for slow play, but it looks like he has worked on that.

He could be a real asset for the team, because he has all the attributes of a good match-play player.