JUST seven words. That’s all it took for Stephen Gallacher to feel comfortable at being back in the company of Tiger Woods for the first time in nearly two decades.
“Hi Stevie, good to see you, bud,” said the world No 1 as the pair warmly shook hands on the first tee at the Emirates Golf Club before setting out in the final group in the Omega Desert Classic Champions’ Challenge.
It was their first outing together since crossing swords as young amateurs in the 1995 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl, a match that duly cropped up in conversation on a sun-kissed day as Fred Couples, the third member of the group, looked forward to visiting the South Wales course for the Senior Open Championship this year.
Having been paired with Open champion Phil Mickelson on a handful of occasions in recent years, Gallacher, who is defending the title in the 25th staging of the main Dubai event starting tomorrow after his three-stroke victory 12 months ago, is no stranger to sharing the spotlight with the game’s big guns. You don’t occupy a position inside the world’s top 100 without being a player capable of holding your own in such company either, yet it was totally understandable that the 39-year-old Scot felt nervous, as well as excited, about his first professional round with not just Woods but Couples, too.
The photograph taken of the trio on the first tee is sure to find a prominent place in Gallacher’s house on the outskirts of Linlithgow, the sight of their son standing between two of the game’s most recognisable figures proviidng another proud moment for Stephen’s onlooking parents, Jim and Wilma.
With wife Helen and his two kids, Jack and Ellie, there, too, as well as family friends and some of his sponsors, Gallacher received a hearty cheer when his name was announced in the 18-hole shoot-out for a $600,000 prize pot and duly outdrove both Woods and Couples with a splendid opening blow. When he then rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt to go one ahead of his playing partners, it prompted one voice in the crowd to suggest it was “similar to Raith Rovers leading Bayern Munich”, as the Fifers famously did against the German giants in the Olympic Stadium. But, while Raith eventually lost 4-1 on aggregate in the 1995/96 Uefa Cup, Gallacher tasted victory, at least in his group.
A bogey-6 at the last, where he airmailed the green with a 3-wood and found a bad lie after taking a drop from the base of the corporate hospitality unit, cost him a share of $100,000, the third-place prize, with Rory McIlroy and Alvaro Quiros, but, nonetheless, a three-under 69 beat Couples by one and Woods, who ran up a 7 at the closing hole, by two.
“Playing with both Tiger and Fred was brilliant,” reflected Gallacher after joining the event’s 19 other winners as well as Javier Ballesteros, representing dad Seve, in a parade of champions on the 18th green. “When you are playing with the world No 1, you are bound to be a bit nervous but it was more due to looking forward to the experience.
“We chatted away – Porthcawl came up, with Fred saying the Senior Open is going there this year so me and Tiger were chatting about that – and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
The ugly finish apart, it was a pleasing pre-event warm-up for Woods, too. Struggling badly as he limped home in 42 when missing the 54-hole cut in the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego on Saturday, the 14-times major winner played within himself on this occasion and birdied the second, third, fourth and seventh, missing just one fairway up to that point, before dropping his first shot of the day at the ninth, where his approach caught the bank and ended up in the drink.
“Tiger’s distance control is brilliant – he was pin high a lot and that’s the key,” observed Gallacher, who will have not only the American for company again but McIlroy, too, in the opening two rounds in the more serious atmosphere of the main tournament.
“Not bad, eh?” declared Gallacher of a dream draw that will see him, surprisingly, play with McIlroy for the first time. “The world No 1 and former world No 1, that’s pretty good. Those are the stages you want to be appearing on and playing with Tiger already here will help for Thursday and Friday. Even today you felt a buzz going on to the first tee and that will definitely be the case in the first two rounds of the tournament as well now.”
Woods said he’d had “fun” walking the fairways with Gallacher again in the company of “big brother” Couples. “I hadn’t played with Stephen in a long time, so it had been a while,” he admitted. “We were reminiscing back to the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl in ’95.”
McIlroy, who finished birdie-eagle but saw both Henrik Stenson and Rafael Cabrera-Bello better his 68 by two shots, as they pocketed $250,000 apiece, described his draw as “perfect” and not just because he certainly won’t lack motivation from the off playing with Woods. “I’ve not played with Tiger for a while and it will also be good to play with Stevie, who played well to win here last year,” he noted.