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Golf's powers, golf's focus with Abu Dhabi

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – In order, European Tour officials marched world Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 into the press center on Wednesday for a media meet and greet at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

That the PGA Tour won’t be able to trot out a similar mathematical “Murderer’s Row” until the last week of February at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is everything one needs to know about where the power base is in professional golf right now.

This truth is neither alarmist nor reactionary, simply the way of the global golf world and, at least from a purely competitive point of view, a sway of the pendulum that is long overdue.

Europeans now hold two of the four major championships (Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy), four of the top 5 spots in the world ranking, the Ryder Cup and a first-of-its-kind transatlantic money title sweep (Luke Donald).

There are cycles and there are cyclones; that’s up to history to decide. What’s not up for debate is the European Tour’s climb in stature from ‘C’ list to center stage.

Camp Ponte Vedra Beach and the Torrey Pines faithful may file this as an inconvenient truth, but Abu Dhabi, and its sister heavyweight Dubai, have become the de facto start of the golf season.

The old Bob Hope Classic used to hold that title, then it transitioned to Doral and most recently Torrey Pines, site of this week’s PGA Tour stop. And this goes well beyond Tiger Woods’ desert cameo and an appearance fee that is reported to pay the world No. 25 between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

The truth is in the numbers, with six of the top 10, 11 of the top 25 and 19 of the top 50 assembled in Abu Dhabi. By comparison, this week’s Farmers Insurance Open has a single player inside the top 10 (Dustin Johnson) and the Tour’s season kickoff at Kapalua had two in the top 10.

“They have developed a tournament every year and turned it into probably the premiere event in the swing with the field and the ranking points and everything that comes along with it,” McIlroy said.

In a sport increasingly dominated by world ranking math, McIlroy’s point is well taken. Last year, the Abu Dhabi winner received 56 ranking points. The highest point total for a winner this year on Tour is 44 at last week’s Humana Challenge.

If the PGA Tour and its star-driven marquee is the undisputed heavyweight in the room, the European circuit has gained reigning amateur status in recent years thanks to deep-pocketed sponsors like HSBC and the tour’s indifference toward appearance fees, an evil the PGA Tour has long eschewed.

But if Abu Dhabi is the unofficial beginning of the season in some circles it is only a prologue to the PGA Tour’s unchallenged significance as winter turns to spring and major championships, not money, become the primary focus.

“In all fairness between probably April and after the PGA (in August), most of the golfing world is focused on the U.S.,” Lee Westwood said. “But the rest of the world is where golf is big time. The focus of everybody’s attention seems to be in Asia and the Middle East for six months.”

Be it the sign of the times or simply an economic reality, stops in the Middle East like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as Asia, have come by their spot at the big table honestly.

The European Tour’s desert swing began 15 years ago and has grown to three stops in addition to the season-ending Dubai World Championship, while the circuit also will make six trips to Asia this season to round out an ever-expanding global portfolio.

It is a territorial grab that has the PGA Tour scrambling to make up for lost time with soon-to-be official stops in China and Malaysia.

“Everybody understands there’s Asia. Everybody understands there’s the Middle East,” said Westwood’s manager Chubby Chandler, a European staple who has been coming to Dubai since his playing days. “Even the Americans, and I’m not saying that disparagingly, but they didn’t really pay any attention to it and that’s why we snuck up on the outside.”

But playing global catch up won’t help the PGA Tour reclaim its place as the de facto beginning of the golf season, that much was clear as Donald, Westwood, McIlroy and Martin Kaymer – Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively, in the world – made their way through the media center, heavyweights that make Abu Dhabi the undisputed champion and the unofficial start of 2012.