Interview with Lee Westwood at 2021 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, we spoke to reigning champion and Race to Dubai winner Lee Westwood about his hopes to retain the title.

Defending champion at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and starting the year as reigning European Tour Number One, how are you feeling going into this week? 

I feel good. I came out early to the Middle East to do some pre-season. Can’t do anything at home at the moment because the golf courses are closed, and the weather is no good. I normally come down early, so I did that and down at The Creek in Dubai they gave us courtesy of the course there. My game feels in good shape, I don’t feel like I’ve had much of an off-season. The year finished so late last year and we’ve started early this year. I feel in good shape and driving the ball well and putting feels good. I was saying to Helen this morning that I’ve done everything, I’m getting bored and I wish it was Thursday. 

How exciting is it being here as defending champion? 

It’s always good coming back to a tournament and a venue where you’ve won before. You have that little bit of confidence. I played the back nine today. I was walking up on to that 18th green and the last time I was there was when I was winning the tournament last year. It’s always a confidence booster when you come back to somewhere where you’ve won, you’re familiar with and feel like you can score well. Other than the win last year, I’ve had some good performances here. It’s a golf course that sets up well for me. 

Ryder Cup qualifying restarted on January 1, does this week feel like the restart for qualifying and what are your plans to try and make the team? 

There are a few people who won a few points before it was halted last year. Pádraig has taken the decision to change the points system. More like a bonus system, the closer you get to The Ryder Cup the more points you play for. It makes complete sense that you have players there that are on form. Someone who was playing well two years ago isn’t necessarily playing well now. You want your strongest and best team, a team on form, when you play the Americans in The Ryder Cup. We’re playing for a lot of points these first few weeks but as the year goes on, they double. So you need to play consistently well through the year. 

Will you have to add in events you previously wouldn’t have? 

I’ve made my schedule for the year now, the three events here then I’ll be going off to the States to play the WGC, Arnold Palmer, The Players, Honda, Match Play, week off, Masters. That’s a long run – six tournaments in seven weeks. More than I would normally but there’s a lot of World Ranking points to play for this time of year in Florida and up to the Masters. That’s the main reason for that. Then I’ll have a mid-season break, get going at the British Masters at The Belfry and then the PGA Championship. It won’t be such a long run of tournaments after that but I’ll be giving myself more breaks through there. 

Is it a change of schedule from what you’d have originally thought of when The Ryder Cup seemed a long way away? 

Not really. Being Top 50 in the World I’d planned to play a good number of events over there. With travel as unpredictable as it is and things going the way they are I wanted to get over to America and base myself over there for a couple of months. It makes sense not to try and get on airplanes too much and travel from one country to another if you can base yourself in one spot, that makes complete sense. The run is nothing to do with The Ryder Cup, the schedule I penned out would have been the schedule were it a non-Ryder Cup year. 

How much of a skip in the step does it give you with the field around you this week? 

HSBC are great sponsors, this is their first event back since the start of Covid. They’ve got a great field together. Rory’s here, JT, Tommy Fleetwood, Ian Poulter, people like that. It’s a real high-quality field and a good amount of World Ranking points. It’s a big tournament to start the year with. 

Why do you play so well in the Middle East do you think? 

I don’t know. I have a very good record in the desert. I putt on these greens well. I’m good when it gets warm. Who knows? I play good pretty much everywhere. One thing the desert does reward is straight hitting and solid striking. The wind picks up occasionally here so you have to be a good ball striker. There’s no room, especially the course we play, they aren’t that wide. Desert courses in the United States you can get away with a bit more. But the ones we play you have to be straighter and there’s a premium on driving the ball straight. 

Is there new equipment in the bag this year? 

Just the driver I put in play at the DP World Tour Championship, the Ping G425 which has given me another ten-15 yards which is amazing at my age. The stats from that tournament, I was fifth on driving distances which is higher than I’ve been in a long, long time. So it’s a real boost for me that I’m getting it out there such a long way. 

You had the back issue in Dubai last year, how are you starting this year physically? 

I had three weeks off after Dubai where I had a bit of a rest. I came out here and brought Steve McGregor with me, so we’ve been doing a lot of stretching and mobilisation. I still feel it a little bit, I still need to work on it. I’m 47, it is what it is, it’s probably never going to be perfect, but it’s manageable at the moment. It’s not stopping me going flat out at the moment. 

Your plans for the season ahead, do you look at it now with a different set of goals in mind because of 2020? 

I can pencil in tournaments through being in the Top 50 in the World that I might not have been pencilling in before. The WGC in Florida and the following week the Arnold Palmer and The Players, I’ve entered them. The Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship, I was already in The Open from last year. There’s a few other WGCs. With solidifying my spot in the Top 50, I’ve been able to make a bit more of a plan with a few tournaments more available to me and it has been easier to put together a schedule this year than maybe it has been in the past. 

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