The world No 1 is the star attraction in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, which sees Stephen Gallacher defending the title in the event’s 25th staging.
Twelve months ago, Woods pocketed his chunky appearance fee for heading across the Atlantic to play an event on the European Tour’s Middle East Swing in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, providing poor value for money on that occasion as he missed the cut along with Rory McIlroy.
It was left to McIlroy and Open champion Phil Mickelson to be the main crowd-pullers in that event the week before last, with Woods, the 2006 and 2008 winner, having committed instead on this occasion to the milestone staging of the Dubai tournament at the Emirates Golf Club.
In short, it’s a win-win situation for the money-rich United Arab Emirates. One event had Mickelson topping the bill, the other has Woods. Add in McIlroy on both occasions and two of the early-season tournaments on the European Tour schedule are lip-licking affairs.
During the event in Abu Dhabi, it was suggested to Giles Morgan, HSBC’s global head of sponsorship and events, that an arrangement was in place whereby the two tournaments would “share” Woods going forward.
Separated by approximately 80 miles and just two weeks apart on the schedule, that makes sense, of course, yet it was refreshing to hear Morgan respond to that by acknowledging that golf has more than just Woods and Mickelson as crowd-pullers at the present time.
“Golf is spoilt at the moment because the game has a lot of great golfers – plural rather than singular,” he declared, not naming names but clearly referring to the likes of McIlroy, Masters champion Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson, last year’s FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai winner.
It was in response to being asked about his decision to skip last year’s HSBC Champions in China for the second year running that Woods, speaking as he picked up a reported $2.8 million fee in the Turkish Airlines Open in November, came out with the line about him being an “independent contractor”.
In effect, he was saying that so long as he fulfils the criteria of being a member on the PGA Tour, he is free to play where he pleases. That being the case, he chose Dubai over Abu Dhabi on this occasion and, for a good few years to come, Woods knows he can continue to head to the Middle East for a tidy early-season pay-day.
Is he still worth a sackful of money? Well, there was considerably greater excitement among the galleries in Abu Dhabi when they were following Woods than Mickelson, even though the latter is always smiling and looking happy and the former can come across as a right miserable sod a lot of the time.
Woods was like a Pied Piper in Turkey, having had that effect in the likes of China, too. It’s why Morgan may well have reiterated his “disappointment” that Woods was a notable absentee again in the HSBC Champions last year despite being in China on the Monday of the tournament to play in an exhibition match against McIlroy but won’t slaughter him over “independent contracting”.
Without Woods, the game wouldn’t be growing nearly as fast as it is in China while, closer to home, there can still be no denial surely that his influence remains the single biggest factor when it comes to the vast majority of golfers in this country aged 20 or under.
Even at 39, Gallacher is excited about getting the chance to watch the world No 1 at close quarters for the first time since they crossed paths as amateurs in the Walker Cup, the pair having been drawn together along with Fred Couples in today’s ‘Champions Challenge’ at the Emirates Golf Club featuring the event’s former winners as well as Javier Ballesteros, Seve’s son. Admittedly, having Couples for company for around four hours will be as much a highlight for Gallacher, but who can blame the Scot for relishing the prospect of being able to put Woods under the microscope, even though he still hasn’t recaptured that aura of invincibility and is heading to the Middle East on the back of a rare poor showing in the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego.
Almost inevitably, Woods will be paired with McIlroy in the opening two rounds this week, as was the case in Abu Dhabi last year. If the Northern Irishman can drive the ball as well as he did back there a fortnight ago, Woods will get a measure of how well he’s going to have to play to finally kick-start his quest for more majors.
Rejuvenated Garcia deserves Ryder Cup spot
We’ll all have players we’d like to see in Paul McGinley’s Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles and my ‘Dream Team’ for September certainly includes Sergio Garcia.
In 2010, the last time the match was held on this side of the Atlantic, the Spaniard was a mess, failing to come close to either securing or earning a place on Colin Montgomerie’s team at Celtic Manor, where he was essentially chief cheerleader.
It was the “warmth” he felt that week from still being part of Europe’s golfing family, though, that re-ignited Garcia’s career and, after being part of the ‘Miracle at Medinah’, he’s now determined to secure a seventh Ryder Cup appearance later this year.
Two wins in his past three events have set Garcia up nicely in the qualifying race, those triumphs in Thailand and Qatar having demonstrated how one of the game’s best ball-strikers has managed to turn what was once a startling weakness – his putting – into a strength.
At times, the game in general has been a real struggle for Garcia and, sometimes, his issues have been self-inflicted. It’s great to see him smiling again and, though it’s inevitable there will be some new faces on Ryder Cup duty this time around, the likes of Garcia, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood are names McGinley will surely want at his disposal when he pits his wits against that wily old fox, Tom Watson.