The Abu Dhabi Championship is over in the United Arab Emirates, wrapping up this season's first European Tour stop for 2014.
A variation of names are taking part in the competition, from household stars such as Phil Mickelson to newcomers like Tyrrell Hatton, suggesting that this year's golfing calendar could be ushered in with a memorable shock.
As predicted, the golf world was stunned when unexpected hero Pablo Larrazabal stole the show and won the tournament with a score of -14. Rory McIlroy finished second (-13) and Mickelson managed a third-place finish (-13).
The winner pocketed €328,779, according to the European Tour's official website—not a bad kitty so soon after the Christmas break.
The tournament took place between Jan. 16-19 with a quartet of rounds that saw defending champion Jamie Donaldson attempt to become the second man to make a successful defence of the trophy.
Martin Kaymer won it in 2010 and '11.
Pablo Larrazabal found himself under immense pressure in the shapes of Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson coming into Sunday's final hole, but maintained terrific pace to win his first European Tour event in almost three years.
Here's how the top of the leaderboard looked at the tournament's close:
|T2.||Rory McIlroy||Northern Ireland||-13|
|T4.||George Coetzee||South Africa||-12|
|T10.||Darren Fichardt||South Africa||-7|
|T10.||Michael Hoey||Northern Ireland||-7|
|T10.||Miguel Angel Jimenez||Spain||-7|
The full leaderboard can be found on the European Tour's website.
Though was action across the board on the final day of competition, all eyes will have been on Pablo Larrazabal heading into the Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Sunday.
The official European Tour Twitter account confirmed the win:
The Spaniard may have started this weekend's tournament in slow fashion, but rustled up his best stroke form after the cut to cap off a thrilling weekend.
Larrazabal's calm finishing could have came to a close with an eagle finish were it not for some shaky putting, but the 30-year-old gathered himself to birdie the 18th and stay out of McIlroy's reach, the Northern Irishman hitting one below-par on the hole himself.
Larrazabal was able to shoot a Day Four score of five-under, bogeying only the fifth hole as he once again took the necessary steps to silverware.
McIlroy will rue the two-shot penalty given to him on Saturday in what ultimately told the story of his Abu Dhabi outing, but Larrazabal was a deserved victor.
RTE Sports' Des Cahill emphasised how bitter a pill this was to swallow for hopeful McIlroy:
Rory McIlroy misses out by one shot in Abu Dhabi. That needless 2 shot penalty yesterday proves really costly.— Des Cahill (@sportsdes) January 19, 2014
Further down the ranking, it was a fine day for the Swedes as Johan Carlsson and Robert Karlsson flew up the rankings with Round Four scores of seven-under and four-under, respectively, both finishing in the top 10.
Craig Lee was unable to swing momentum in his favour and having found himself at the top of the leaderboard heading into Sunday, a score of five-over on the final day meant that the Scot finishes way down the pecking order with an overall score of seven-under.
Craig Lee retained his place at the top of the Abu Dhabi leaderboard, but was aided by a penalty on Rory McIlroy that saw the Northern Irishman drop to fourth place.
|T4.||Rory McIlroy||Northern Ireland||-9|
|T6.||Miguel Angel Jiminez||Spain||-8|
|T6.||Michael Hoey||Northern Ireland||-8|
Full leaderboard at EuropeanTour.com
McIlroy hit solid approach shots and looked to have played error-free golf on his way to a bogeyless 68. However, a two-shot penalty incurred on the second hole meant that he ended the day on 9 under,in sixth place and out of the main group.
Lee had an up-and-down sort of day, hitting five birdies and two bogeys on his way to a three-under 69. He will have been immensely relieved upon hearing the news of McIlroy's penalty as it affords him a little breathing room for Day 4.
Elsewhere, Rafa Cabrera-Bello dropped out of contention with a disastrous 73, sliding five places to sixth at the end of the day. The Spaniard hit a double bogey on the ninth, then another bogey on the 16th before finally finding the hole with two bogeys to finish.
Round of the day, however, went to Phil Mickelson. Just about everything went right for the American on his way to a glorious 63, and he rose 41 places as a result. Nine birdies and an eagle meant he finished Day 3 in third place alongside India's Gaganjeet Bhullar, who had shot up six places of his own.
Rory McIlroy's score now adjusted from -11 to -9...looks like a two-shot penalty on No. 2. Now trails Lee by 3, bumped from final group.— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) January 18, 2014
Rafa Cabrera-Bello couldn't maintain the same pace that was set on the first day of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. However, the Spaniard did just enough to ensure he and joint-leader Craig Lee hold a one-shot lead over their fellow contenders at the halfway stage of the competition.
Here's how the top of the leaderboard looks heading into the final two days of the tournament:
|T4.||Rory McIlroy||Northern Ireland||-7|
|T7.||George Coetzee||South Africa||-6|
The full leaderboard can be found on the European Tour's website.
The second day of action from the Abu Dhabi Golf Club saw Rory McIlroy demand most of the attention. The Northern Irishman shot five birdies on the back nine, giving him an overall score of seven-under.
Now just two shots away from table toppers Lee and Cabrera-Bello, McIlroy looks confident and capable of posing a challenge for the title this weekend. He told BBC Sport:
It is a good position to be in and I am excited. It is a great way to start the season, being in the mix with 36 holes to play.
I gave myself a target of four under for the back nine. I felt if I could do that I would be right there for the weekend and I managed to go one better.
However, it's England's Danny Willett who deserves the spotlight. The world No. 110 recorded a Day 2 score of nine-under, soaring from obscurity to just one shot off the lead.
Euro Golf Preview says it's the best round the 26-year-old has had for almost two years:
Bogey-free 63 (-9) from Danny Willett today. 7 birdies and an eagle. Best since his 63 at 2012 Portugal Masters.— eurogolfpreview (@eurogolfpreview) January 17, 2014
Lee wasn't too far off McIlroy's prolific finish, having birdied four of the last nine holes himself, managing a Day 2 score of five-under also.
The Scot was actually less accurate around the greens on Friday, requiring three extra swings of the putter, but he continuously managed to put himself in good positions and made 16 greens in regulation.
Nevertheless, Lee remains happy with his putter, per the European Tour's official website:
I think Santa has brought me a good putting stroke for Christmas. My brother installed an astroturf putting green in my front garden at the end of last year and that's made a difference as I've been able to keep putting every day. It's 20 feet by 14 feet and the neighbours have been peering over the fence.
Meanwhile, it was a disappointing couple of days for Henrik Stenson. After entering the competition as the highest-ranked player, Stenson will miss this weekend's cut. Padraig Harrington suffered a similar fate.
As confirmed by Gulf News Sport, world No. 3 Stenson followed up Thursday's score of 74 with an unremarkable 72 on Day 2, missing the cut and getting 2014 off to a bad start in the process:
Attention will now turn to Saturday's heated battle among the best players left in the running, with McIlroy's figure looming larger in the Abu Dhabi heat.
Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Romain Wattel and Matthew Baldwin share the lead at the climax of the Abu Dhabi Championship's first day, setting a five-under score of 67 for the chasing pack to hunt down.
Here's a look at the first-round leaderboard:
|T4.||Dawie Van der Walt||RSA||-4|
You can view the full leaderboard on the European Tour's official website.
Despite a three-way tie for the lead, it's Cabrera-Bello who has the momentum heading into the second round.
The Spanish star sunk birdies on three of his last five holes, giving him a huge boost of confidence after bogeying his opening hole of the day. Cabrera-Bello shot an impressive 32 down the back nine and will need to repeat such form if he is going to sit atop the final leaderboard.
Cabrera-Bello was understandably satisfied, and he suggested his display could be due to the course reminding him of home, per the European Tour website:
I've said it before, I feel very comfortable in this part of the world and not just because of the win in Dubai. With the palm trees, the wind, the heat, it reminds me a lot of home in the Canary Islands. And it's always nice to play golf in short sleeves!
Englishman Matthew Baldwin combated two bogeys with seven birdies across the 18. An eight-footer on the sixth pushed him to six under for the first time, but a bogey at the ninth denied him the outright lead.
To be fair to Baldwin, the Abu Dhabi Golf Club's ninth forced many stars into missing par, as we saw with double-bogeys for the likes of Marcel Siem and Tyrrell Hatton.
Hatton, the 22-year-old English rookie, did excellently to finish three under par. He was rightfully delighted with his performance, as he noted on Twitter:
Very pleased with today's round, drove the ball well and only missed 2 fairways! Hopefully keep that form going for the rest of the week!— Tyrrell Hatton (@thatton91) January 16, 2014
Romain Wattel will also be pleased with his day's work after hitting par or better on every hole. His five birdies put him in contention at the top and saw him rub shoulders with Cabrera-Bello and Baldwin for the lead.
Joost Luiten, Marc Warren and Dawie Van der Walt prop up the group of challengers who remain closest to the lead.
Trying to win his first European Tour title since 2005, Ireland's Paul McGinley missed a chance for the lead on the 13th but looks set to maintain pace with the trio at the top if he continues to finish on near-perfect rounds of 68, per the European Tour's Twitter account:
Rory McIlroy enjoyed a solid start, finishing the round at two under. The Northern Irishman's excellent driving was a real feature of his game.
After enduring a miserable time in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago, he appeared in brighter spirits, as noted by the player himself on the European Tour's website:
That's about as good as I have struck the ball in a long time. I had a good end to 2013 and of course a great New Year so yeah, I think I do have the spring back in my step. Driving the ball well is so important for me; when I can do that I usually score good too.
McIlroy is one of the current outsiders who will be hoping to continue improving his score throughout the tournament in order to take the overall win.
As for fan-favorite Phil Mickelson, the choice to switch to a new driver has not paid off, as noted by Will Gray of GolfChannel.com. Not only did he struggle off the tee, but he also failed to make a birdie all day and finished the first round at one over par. He is six shots off the lead.
The damage could have been worse, but Mickelson will have to play much better on Day 2 if he wants the chance to contend for the tournament victory.
With Cabrera-Bello, Baldwin and Wattel looking impressive during the first day, the standard has been set for the rest to follow.