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Dispatch from the Desert, Round 1

Greetings from Abu Dhabi.

Soly and I made the trek to the UAE for this week’s Euro Tour stop in Abu Dhabi mostly out of curiosity. I’d never been to the Middle East nor to a European Tour event prior to yesterday, hence this was a great opportunity to gain some perspective on the game beyond the confines of North America and to get up close and personal with the best clubhouse on the planet. Once we saw the list of players in the field this week it was a no-brainer.

Having quit my job last week to go full-time with NLU I am perhaps overly conscientious of the lens through which I am viewing the events of this week (and moving forward for that matter), and careful to separate access, favor and recency from reality. That being said, let’s dive in:

Rory

Always tough to get enthused about press conferences – players get asked the same questions from a rotating cast of journalists searching for quotes to edify the theme they’ve already chosen to write about. However, in the couple of years I’ve been attending these things, Rory McIlroy’s been a different case. He toes a line that I’ve seen from few golfers: simultaneously vulnerable yet confident, savvy without being jaded. Ten years into his career he seems unfazed by the “gotcha” moments that befall open and honest admissions (see: Tiger’s GQ article or the fervor generated by Rory’s recent news of a heart condition), content to proceed as a relatively normal human who possesses inhuman golf skills. Add to that a three month hiatus and there was much to discuss after having some time to reflect: the ups and downs of 2017, the aforementioned (overblown) cardiac news, and the promise of a new season ahead in 2018.

I first met Rory at last year’s PGA at Quail Hollow. He seemed weary and beaten down by the rash of injuries, equipment upheaval, the new and welcome realities of marriage, and the ancillary distractions (playing with Trump, caddie change, etc. ) that came his way in 2017. A month later I met an even more run-down version of him at the BMW Championship in Chicago. During the two part podcast he recorded with NLU he offered an air of resignation that this year was meant to be one of transition and that he was playing out the string to fulfill his professional obligations to the fullest (see: his appearances at the Dunhill and British Masters after the BMW).

“Honestly, I was excited to be done,” said Rory. “I could have shut it down after the PGA last year very easily and taken the rest of the year off, but I didn’t. I played five events after that. Played okay. I had a chance to win one of them. But I was just excited to take that time off and reset.”

He then went into the toll the injuries took on him mentally:

“Didn’t really practice much between tournaments, because I couldn’t. So that mentally gets you because every time you turn up at an event, you don’t feel prepared. You don’t feel like you’ve done enough work to be ready and then even if you do get yourself in contention, almost feel a bit guilty that you’re there because you haven’t done the work.”

With that context, Rory’s mindset here in Abu Dhabi seems to be one of rejuvenation. He spoke excitedly about the sabbatical he was able to enjoy after last season, the perspective gained from stepping away, and the season ahead. He enters the 2018 season 11th in the world (lowest he’s entered a year since 2008) and several times made particular note of the fact that he’s now entering the second decade of his career. Like Kyle Porter, I promised myself I would take it slow and not get sucked in by the hype – too late, totally sucked. I feel like an NFL writer saying that “so-and-so” is entering camp in the best shape of his life.” (For the record he’s actually gained two kilos)

On the subject of his health it sounds like the heart thing is totally overblown and turned into a prime opportunity for click-bait during the slow season. He also indulged everyone in some Tiger-like jargon around blood profiles (turns out his Omega-3 and Omega-6 ratios were out of whack – he’ll be standing in the hall of fame next week in Dubai, which should help on that front) and heart testing (I know what a T-wave is now).

Long story short, it’ll probably take a few weeks to knock off the rust completely, but I think we’re in for a treat. He’s scheduled for 25 events between starting now and ending with the Ryder Cup, and then whatever he plays beyond that. Between the #reps, the stability, the perspective and the foundation that married life provides I couldn’t be more excited to see what’s on tap. Get the wedges and butter knife dialed in and it’s game on.

Tournament Notes

  • Tommy Fleetwood was awarded the Seve Trophy, which is the European Tour’s Player of the Year honor and was quite taken by it. The achievement is doubly impressive considering he got married, had a kid, and had a bananas travel schedule. Despite his success in the states at Erin Hills and at the WGC Mexico he’s still vastly underrated stateside and is right back at it this week, setting the pace in the morning wave with a first-round 66 and hitting all 18 greens in the process.
  • Guys I’m curious to see – Lucas Bjerrgaard, Austin Connelly (he’s like Spencer Levin minus 20 pounds, its uncanny) and Thomas Detry are at the top of the list.
  • We’ll say it a dozen more times this week and I’m working on a piece regarding the structure of the European schedule and the ascent of the Abu Dhabi stop in particular, but the strength of the field is silly. Pieters, Kuchar, DJ, Casey, Fleetwood, Rory, Rose, Stenson, Kaymer, plus all the usually underrated Euro Tour suspects (Frittelli, Dunne, Uncle Joost, Zanotti, RCB, etc.)

  • The differences between the PGA Tour and the European Tour aren’t outwardly stark, but the more you dig in the more you catch. The whole scene is a breath of fresh air, confirming that at the end of the day that it’s just golf.  The ease of rules and regulations, the convivial atmosphere in the media center, the fascinating Sky Sports team and the variety of nationalities and backgrounds in the field all add up to an interesting menagerie.
  • Had the occasion to chat with Richie Ramsay yesterday for awhile yesterday – WAY IN. More to come on that front.
  • With regard to the course – I was pleasantly surprised (desert golf typically not my cup of tea) – aside from the obvious mint conditioning an interesting takeaway was the lack of drainage and catch-basins, especially around greens. When it rains six inches per year there’s not much need. The stout closing stretch of the par-3 15th, big dogleg par-4 16th and 17th holes and then the par-5 18th add up to a stellar championship closer.
  • There’s a distinct season opener vibe on the grounds (no disrespect intended to the BMW SA Open last week) – players look refreshed and glad to be back on the grind to begin anew.
  • Played in the pro-am with Branden Grace yesterday – thoroughly enjoyable round even beyond the ball-striking fiesta. I’m always intrigued to meet caddies and talk about their craft and their story. Grace’s caddie Zack was a revelation – very direct, experienced and earnest guy. Here’s Jim McCabe from a few years ago with the backstory. Highly recommend. #perspective

Locale Notes

The trip over was relatively uneventful – left JAX at 5:40am, connected thru JFK, braved a long layover and then flew overnight from there. Big shoutout to Etihad for A) the live television, enabling Sunday NFL playoff viewing over the Atlantic (DUUUUUVAL!; also Dan Fouts was shockingly bad on the call – his skills are deteriorating rapidly). The flight path yielded some interesting flyover locales and hammered home the central location of Abu Dhabi within the Middle East. I looked at the map, saw a bunch of upheaval and then walked off the plane into one of the safest places I’ve ever been, almost startlingly so.

We arrived late morning and stayed awake through the afternoon and evening we ate a ton of hummus and then booked an off-roading adventure through the desert to stave off the jet-lag. When we opened the curtains on Tuesday morning a thick fog had enveloped the city and the scene was more reminiscent of San Francisco than the desert. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque figures prominently in the skyline in the area of the city where we’re staying and our hotel looks out across the canal at it – spectacular structure.

Being a (former) hotelier I am always keen to see the local hotel scene – this one does not disappoint. Made it to the Fairmont, Ritz and Shangri-La thus far. A few people have reached out on twitter to recommend a trip over to the Palace hotel – will report back. Soly and I have been on site the past few days and have not had the occasion to explore the city much, so we’re headed out there this afternoon. Also heard the Friday brunch scene is en fuego here, so will check that out tomorrow and report back.

About the Author

Tron Carter - NLU's resident curmudgeon, wannabe media critic, fashion crusader, and arbiter of all things "pop." Passionate proponent of taking driver off the deck. Native of Atlanta, now residing in Jacksonville Beach after two quick, but beneficial years in Boston. Other interests include history, infrastructure, wine, and Michael Bay's seminal masterpiece The Rock. Also doing business as "Todd Schuster." [email protected]

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