January 18, 2018
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson spearheads a stellar cast when the $3 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship tees off in the UAE on Thursday -- but his mind is firmly on the US Masters.
Johnson will battle returning former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, current No. 6 Justin Rose, and Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey and Matt Kuchar who are all within the top 15.
The reigning Europe No.1 Tommy Fleetwood is the defending champion.
Johnson, 33, is returning to Abu Dhabi Golf Club's National course having finished second to Fleetwood last year and just like in 2017, is in blistering form at the start of the year.
In the PGA Tour’s year-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, the American nearly aced a 433-yard par-4 hole en route to winning the champions-only event by a whopping eight shots over Jon Rahm.
Last year, after his runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi, he had won three tournaments in February and March before a freak accident on the eve of the Masters ruled him out of the first major of the season.
Doing well in the Masters is certainly a goal this year for Johnson, but before that he wants to go one better than his 2017 result in Abu Dhabi.
"I felt like this golf course suits me pretty well and I like the setup of it. Last year was the first time being here, obviously playing four rounds in the tournament definitely helps," said Johnson.
"I kind of struggled for a little while last year after Augusta, but I finally felt from the FedEx Cup Playoffs through now, the game is starting to get back into the form it was this time last year where I had a really good run leading into Augusta.
"So it's definitely good. I've been working hard on the game, but the golf swing feels like it's finally getting back to where it was.
"I played well in Hawaii, but that was two weeks ago. This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par, so I've got to start over again."
- 'Roll with it' -
Johnson said he was eager to get back to Augusta National and compete in the Masters after missing the event last year when he reportedly slipped on a wet staircase and hurt himself on the eve of the tournament.
"I was very disappointed I didn't get to play last year, but things happen," he said.
"So you've just got to roll with it. But it's a place where I always love going to play. I feel like I really like the golf course. The last two Masters I played in, I did very well, and so I’m definitely excited to go back."
England's Rose, who finished 2017 in superb fashion by winning the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai and then the Turkish Airlines Open, was hoping to continue with that form early in 2018.
"I think I finished the season with ten straight top-10s, and that's not been done by me and probably not been done by many," said the reigning Olympic champion.
"So that was a really solid, consistent run of golf. And then to throw three wins in there and have a couple of other chances... that was a really, really strong run of golf, and I am looking forward to just keeping that momentum going as soon as possible."
Johnson is paired with McIlroy and Fleetwood for the opening two rounds, while Rose goes out with Olympic silver medalist Stenson and bronze winner Kuchar.