Amazing Grace, but Garcia & co set for Abu Dhabi do
With all due respect to South Africa and its latest golfing sensation Branden Grace there is an overwhelming feeling that the 2012 golf season starts in earnest this week.
Grace deserves plenty of respect after he secured a brilliant double when he won the Champions tournament on the Links at Fancourt on Sunday. The recent Qualifying School graduate beat big-name compatriots Ernie Els and Retief Goosen in a play-off to claim his second title in seven days.
There was a time when those two South African giants were - with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh - members of the game's "big five". But this is no longer the case and the waning Els and Goosen have shifted to the periphery of the big-time stage.
Branden Grace was 258th in the world rankings last week but now moves into the top 100. Photo: Getty
It takes an awful lot more than mere results to remove Woods from the centre of the golfing spotlight and the 14-time major winner is threatening a resurgent year after winning his own limited-field event at the end of 2011.
But to maintain the momentum he now needs to fend off a different generation; the likes of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer.
And this is why this week's opening event on the European Tour's "Desert Swing" in Abu Dhabi is such an eagerly anticipated tournament. Not only is Woods launching his season in the Emirate, he does so against the top four players in the world.
From a parochial point of view it is all the more interesting because the top three places in the world rankings are occupied by UK golfers in Donald, Westwood and McIlroy.
The current venue creates quality victors like defending champion Kaymer, who is a three-time winner of the tournament, and this suggests a star-studded leaderboard will be challenging for the title come Sunday afternoon.
Let's hope so, because a tussle between Woods and players who head the world rankings would offer the perfect start to what promises to be a vintage golfing year.
One player who will surely been keen to join the mix, and might just succeed this week, is Sergio Garcia. Still only 32, he is embarking on the 13th full season of a lucrative yet still unfulfilled career.
The Spaniard has finished tied eighth and in a share of 13th place in his two previous visits to Abu Dhabi and, like Woods, appears firmly on the comeback trail after his golf had appeared to be in a dangerous downward spiral.
With a revamped putting style Sergio Garcia appears firmly on the comeback trail. Photo: Reuters
Garcia is currently 17th in the world rankings, eight places higher than Woods, having won twice in his last four tournaments. Those victories came back to back in Spain in the latter part of the 2011 season.
He won the Castello Masters on his home course by an astonishing 11 strokes in October, finishing at 27 under par, and the following week triumphed in the Andalucia Masters at a far more exacting Valderrama.
Both wins showed a revamped putting style could withstand the pressure of the sharp end of a tournament which should imbue the Spaniard with confidence as he embarks on arguably the most important year of his career to date.
Since finishing second to Padraig Harrington in the 2008 US PGA, a season in which he won more money than any other player by pocketing nearly $7m, there has been little to cheer Garcia.
Unsettled in his personal life and increasingly petulant on the course he tumbled out of the world's top 50 and failed to make the last Ryder Cup team for the first time.
The first signs that his exceptional talent was being re-harnessed came around seven months ago when he made a play-off at the International Open in Germany and finished seventh at the US Open.
Then, in July, he was ninth at the Open at Sandwich where he cut a composed and contented figure on the course. No longer were we watching him walk onto greens and wondering how badly his putter would behave.
His new "saw-grip" has grown ever more dependable; he ranked 13th in the European Tour putting charts for greens hit in regulation, and his long game remains as strong as any in the upper echelons of the game.
Still the temper can boil over, as was seen in his last outing in Thailand where a five iron was sent whirling into the water after an ugly pushed tee shot, but as Garcia says himself, overall his mental attitude is much improved.
"Compared with a year ago it has changed a lot," he told reporters while finishing 11th at the season-ending Dubai World Championship.
Garcia says he is less likely to let a poor shot affect him negatively. "You learn as you go and hopefully you keep on going like that," he said.
Naturally he is determined to regain his place in the European Ryder Cup team, especially with his compatriot, and a partner in 2006, Jose Maria Olazabal captaining the side.
An encouraging start has been made to Garcia's qualifying campaign for Medinah - he currently lies fifth in the table and would make significant strides with a high finish this week in a tournament rich in world ranking points.
If he can kick off his 2012 season in the resurgent manner of the second half of his last campaign there is no reason why he can't re-establish himself at the very top of the game.
Witnessing how Garcia fares against Woods and Europe's current "big four" will be one of the most fascinating aspects for what promises to be an enthralling tournament in Abu Dhabi this week.