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Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy set for duel in the desert

The course gets less attention than the clubhouse, built in the shape of a falcon with outstretched wings looking out over the ninth and 18th greens. The terrain is reminiscent of Palm Springs, with bright green grass, plenty of sand and pleasant heat.

Of course, this is a different kind of desert, one far away in the Middle East, and the setting for golf's first showdown of 2016.

As unlikely as it might seem for Abu Dhabi Golf Club to be the place where Jordan Spieth, 22, and Rory McIlroy, 26, will meet for what is expected to be the first of many encounters this year, the tournament itself is one of the most popular on the European Tour. And it is one McIlroy is playing for the ninth time.

A year ago, McIlroy tied for second in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, won two weeks later in Dubai, and appeared on his way to another dominating year, having concluded 2014 with two major championships as the firm No. 1 player in the world.

Now he is third behind Spieth and Jason Day, who combined for 10 victories -- including three major championships -- in 2015. McIlroy's four worldwide wins last year were almost lost in the aftermath.

"In a season that he considered lost, he still came back and ended up winning the Race to Dubai, the final event,'' Spieth said of McIlroy last week. "It just proves what a player he is. I'm sure there are very few people working harder this offseason to make this year his best year yet, which is scary. Hopefully I can help prevent that to an extent.''

Spieth has his own questions to answer, namely how he will deal with expectations after winning two major championships and the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup. The 8-shot victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to start this year certainly didn't hurt in that regard.

Now he is making his first visit to the Middle East, where he will play alongside McIlroy and Rickie Fowler during the first two rounds.

"You can be satisfied and think about all the stuff you've done, or you can look at what these guys who you've looked up to your whole life have accomplished more than you have," Spieth said in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

"So look at Tiger [Woods], Phil [Mickelson], Rory, these guys that have done more in the game of golf than I have, and I want to strive to get to what they have done. I want my name to go down in history for as many things as it can. That's where my mind is. I'm less satisfied with what's happened and more hungry to try and keep it going.''

The $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the European Tour, where both Spieth and McIlroy are likely getting hefty appearance fees, is just one tournament, so this week means only so much in the big picture of a long year. Spieth and McIlroy will meet again next month at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles and again two weeks later at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

But undoubtedly McIlroy feels the need to get moving in a positive direction. He had top-10 finishes in both the Masters and U.S. Open that Spieth won in 2015, with plenty of anticipation for The Open -- all derailed by a soccer injury to his ankle that caused him to miss three tournaments and lose ground to the others.

McIlroy never really found his form again until the PGA Tour season was complete. He did add a third Race to Dubai title in four years when he captured the European Tour's season-ending event in Dubai, helping salvage what he said was otherwise a "lost'' year.

"I made no secret I want to get back to that position, and I want to do it as quick as possible,'' McIlroy told reporters in Abu Dhabi. "That's definitely a motivation.''

As is his custom, McIlroy arrived early in the United Arab Emirates, practicing last week in Dubai, where he will also spend time after this tournament and prior to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in two weeks.

McIlroy said last month he hoped to be in position to get back to No. 1 by the Masters, a feat made more difficult by Spieth's victory two weeks ago. The Northern Irishman has a chance to surpass Day and get to No. 2, and while finishing ahead of Spieth in Abu Dhabi is understandably a goal, McIlroy is not going to put it in those terms.

"I want to play my best and I don't have to just beat Jordan Spieth this week,'' he said. "I have to beat another 142 guys. So it would be foolish of me to think that that's all my competition was -- and I think it would be an injustice to every other player that's in the field because there's so much talent on tour.

"I want to play well this week, and if that means laying down a marker to someone or to the rest of the field, then that's great. But I just want to try to play my best and hopefully win this thing. I've had four runners-up and I've been close a couple of times [in Abu Dhabi]. Hopefully I can change that this week.''

There is a lot McIlroy would like to change this year. Winning a major. Capturing multiple tournaments. Getting back atop the world rankings. Spieth, Day, Fowler and plenty of others stand in the way, all of which makes for an intriguing golf year.

Spieth and McIlroy have combined to hold the top spot in the rankings in 62 of the past 68 weeks, and they've combined to win 15 tournaments in the past two years while capturing four of the past eight major championships.

This week is just one step in a long journey, and few are likely to remember the Falcon Trophy that goes to the winner. But an early-season showdown is welcome, no matter the setting or time zone.