Updated at: 01/16/2013 10:37 AM
By MICHAEL CASEY
(AP) ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - Rory McIlroy is looking forward to actually playing golf again after the buzz of his multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal and the selection of European Ryder Cup captain.
The world’s top-ranked golfer and PGA Championship winner leads a star-studded field at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship that includes Tiger Woods, No. 5 Justin Rose, Ernie Els and Martin Kaymer.
McIlroy signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike this week and led the charge for Paul McGinley in his successful campaign to become Europe’s 2014 Ryder Cup captain.
Now he’s looking forward to getting his year off to a strong start at the National Course, where he has repeatedly come up short against Kramer, a three-time winner here.
"It’s a place I have done well. I think one problem for me the last few years has been Martin Kaymer. He’s played really well around here and won it a couple of times, three times I think, and I always came up second best," said McIlroy, who is coming off a season-ending victory at the Dubai World Championship as well as the European and PGA tour money titles.
"It would be nice to go one better this week and obviously that’s what I’m aiming for, but it’s a great field and looks like the golf course is in great shape as well."
Most of the questions to McIlroy this week has been about his new sponsorship deal _ estimated to be worth up to $20 million a year _ but he insisted his emergence as a mega-rich athlete would have no bearing on how he approaches 2013.
"I’m just concentrating on playing golf. You know, all the financial side and everything like that will take care of itself," the 23-year-old Northern Irishman said. "I’m in it to try and win trophies and they are worth more to me than any contract."
The spotlight on McIlroy will be even bigger this week as he’s paired with Woods for the first two days, in a group that also includes Kaymer, giving fans another chance to see golf’s two biggest names go at it.
"I just want to get off to a good start," said Woods, who had a share of the lead after three round last year in Abu Dhabi but finished third after shooting a 72. "I’m playing two weeks in a row, and I had a nice break and have geared up for these two weeks and have tried to get mentally and physically ready for these two tournaments."
Woods said he was happy with his ball striking and short game toward the end of last season, so he hasn’t made any major changes to his swing.
Is he ready to challenge McIlroy for the No. 1 ranking? Woods said for now, he’s just concerned with winning.
"The rankings take care of themselves by winning golf tournaments," Woods said. "I was at one point, what was I, outside the top 50 or whatever it was. But I won three times last year and lo and behold, look where I’m at. It’s about winning golf tournaments and being consistent."
Among those closing the gap on the top two is Rose, who starred in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory over the United States and almost stole a victory from McIlroy in the Dubai World Championship. The Englishman shot a course-record 62 that included an eagle and eight birdies but fell two shots short.
Rose, who is making his first appearance in Abu Dhabi, said he was glad to be flying "under the radar" in the tournament where Woods and McIlroy are taking top billing.
"Well, I think status is something I’m a long way from, but I believe my game is not far at all," Rose said in comparing himself to Woods an McIlroy. "I’m very happy that I can close the gap or hopefully make the gap disappear with some hard work and some just continue what I’m doing."
Kaymer, a former No. 1 whose struggles last year resulted in him falling to 28th, said he was hopeful his Ryder Cup performance _ sinking the putt that allowed Europe to retain the trophy _ could inspire better results in 2013.
"Something career-changing happened," he said. "And, obviously, that gives you so much motivation and belief."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)