Rickie Fowler will defend his Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title this week

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Rickie Fowler will defend his Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title this week

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Rickie Fowler flew home from the 2016 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with more than just the Falcon Trophy.

The win over a stellar field last January boosted Fowler's belief that a first major title was within sight. Lifting him to a career-high No. 4 in the rankings, it also sparked talk about whether he should be included in the conversation with golf's so-called "Big Three," which comprised Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy at the time.

"It would have been nice to kind of continue that form," Fowler said Tuesday on his return to Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Instead, that proved to be the only victory of 2016 for Fowler, the United States' triumph in the Ryder Cup notwithstanding. His best finish at a major was a tie for 33rd at the U.S. PGA Championship and he ended the year ranked outside the top 10.

U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and - most recently - Justin Thomas are among those who have accelerated past Fowler, who said his dip in status is pushing him to play better in 2017.

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"Golf's so deep right now," Fowler said, "and it will be nice if we can get Tiger back for a full season."

Fowler's chances of a successful defense of his Abu Dhabi title improved Monday when McIlroy - at No. 2, the highest-ranked player in the field - withdrew because of a rib injury.

Still, the field remains strong, as always in this event which starts Thursday. The third-ranked Johnson is making his debut, while two more current major champions - Henrik Stenson and Danny Willett - are there, too.

"He's obviously one of the best players in the world," Fowler said about McIlroy. "It was fun to have him in contention with me last year here.

"Does that make me look at the tournament any differently? No. You know, it's one less top player in the world I'm going to have to beat, but the field here is one of the best fields on the European Tour."

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Refreshed after spending time over Christmas and the new year with family and friends, Fowler cannot wait to get back on the course. Particularly after seeing Thomas - one of his best friends - winning back-to-back events in Hawaii.

"It's inspiring and motivating," said Fowler, currently the world No. 14.

Fowler's main focus is tailoring his schedule to give him the best chance at winning a major. He said that will mean playing events in the weeks leading up to the majors, rather than using that time to rest or work on the range.

The Masters is already in his sights. He was renowned as a slow starter to seasons until last year, when he won in Abu Dhabi and then lost the Phoenix Open in a playoff to nearly reduce him to tears.

That didn't translate to a good performance at Augusta National in April, though, as he opened with an 80 and failed to make the weekend.

"Obviously looking to peak," Fowler said, "getting the first few months going, heading the right direction and peak that first week of April."

This article was from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.