As the sun beats down with precious little breeze, golfing conditions could not be better here in Abu Dhabi. The first European Tour event of 2019 is underway and there’s a familiar feel of anticipation for the coming year. This has become the regular starting point; players are fresh, goals set and the maddening irritations brought on by this often unfathomable game have yet to kick in.
I’m writing this having just been told by Shane Lowry that he is embarking on an eighteen month programme to force his way into the next Ryder Cup team. He wants to play for his fellow Irishman, Padraig Harrington, at Whistling Straits. This is a player who lost his card on the PGA Tour in 2018, but optimism abounds at this time of the year – especially when you’ve just knocked it round in 62. So what can we golf fans expect from the new year? We should be optimistic too because there are plenty of enticing plot lines to suggest this will be a vintage season. Tiger Woods’ stirring comeback in the last campaign is ready for consolidation. Provided he can maintain fitness he will be a magnet for attention at all of the major stops. And it is worth remembering that the new golf calendar is tailored to generating and maintaining momentum. It starts with the Players Championship in March and then the Masters the following month. The buzz at Augusta will be palpable if Woods is in any kind of form and if Rory McIlroy can get things going it will reach fever-pitch when the Northern Irishman embarks on his latest attempt to complete the career grand slam. The US PGA will be ready to harness the interest generated by the year’s first men’s major with its new May date. Raucous New York crowds at Bethpage Black will give an added dimension at the major previously regarded as the fourth of the four big ones.
From there we trundle on to the West coast of the States and the iconic Pebble Beach for June’s US Open. Remember Graeme McDowell’s win in 2010? What price another European conquering traditionally the toughest of the majors? And how about the odds on a McIlroy victory the following month in his native Northern Ireland?
The Open’s visit to an already sold out Royal Portrush will be one of the genuine highlights of 2019. The excitement in Ulster at the championship returning for the first time since 1951 is already palpable. The Open may now be the last of the majors but there is no danger of the oldest and best being relegated in its prestige – especially among the fervour of the fans across the Irish sea. With the men’s majors out of the way, the Women’s British Open will have room to breathe when Georgia Hall defends her title at Woburn, the home course of her biggest UK rival Charley Hull. It should be a cracking week, but the event I’m most looking forward to is the Solheim Cup. Europe will be trying to win back the trophy from the US in a match being played on British soil for the first time since 2000. Gleneagles will be the place to be in September.
There is so much to look forward to and it is great that we will continue to chronicle all the developments on the BBC podcast, The Cut. There is plenty of good listening out there in this burgeoning medium and Andrew Cotter and I are delighted to take up our little place on the BBC Sounds app. We try not to take it all too seriously, but we are both massive golf fans and love the opportunity to chat away about the sport and, occasionally, our own games. He does not play so much these days courtesy of a dodgy hip, but I’m hacking away as often as possible. As it stands I’m one competition into the year and already my optimism has well and truly evaporated. But at least there will be plenty to enjoy following those who can genuinely play the game.