A helicopter landing in the desert stirs up great clouds of sand.
The chopper carrying Tiger Woods and his pal Mark O'Meara touched
down on the afternoon of Feb. 28 outside the Al Quoz stables in
Dubai, stirring up a royal reception as well. Men in white robes
ushered the two golfers into the middle car of a five-car
caravan, then drove them across 500 yards of hardpan to the
stable gates. Woods, staring straight ahead like a seasoned
generalissimo, ignored a cluster of Arab and international
newshounds outside the barbed-wire-and-petunias perimeter. The
gate flew up, and the cars rolled into a horseman's paradise of
white rails, red-tile roofs and impossibly green grass.
There are many such contrasts in Dubai, the second largest of the
seven states that constitute the United Arab Emirates.
Skyscrapers punctuate a dirtscape that only a Bedouin could love,
while yachts tie up at docks that once served leaky wooden dhows.
A mere turn of the head provides a change of scene: This is
something, this is nothing. This is something, this is nothing.
Dubai, in other words, is like Woods, who has been staggering in
a desert of high expectations since his record-shattering season
of 2000. His stretch of eight straight PGA Tour appearances
without a victory has the world whispering that Tiger's in
trouble, because for him, winning is something and anything less
is nothing. Consequently, the Dubai Desert Classic--a European
tour event held last week at the posh Emirates Golf Club--assumed
an importance that couldn't have been anticipated eight months
ago when Woods accepted a reported $2 million to play. ("That
figure is speculation," says Desert Classic tournament director
Bob Wilkinson, "and quite excessive speculation, I might add.")
If Woods could beat a Dubai field that included Euro stars Darren
Clarke, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, the victory would go
a long way toward quieting the alarmists. If he couldn't--well, $2
million still buys a lot of petunias.
Who, however, would have predicted that Woods would play three
rounds like the Tiger who destroyed U.S. Open and British Open
fields last year--and then play the final hole like the Tiger that
hawks Frosted Flakes? Who expected the man who had won 23 of 26
tournaments when he led after three rounds to stage a one-man
Choke of Araby, losing to a Dubai winter resident named Thomas
Bjorn? And who would have dreamed that Woods, shocked by his
collapse, would become so distraught in the scorer's cabin that
the trophy presentation would have to be delayed? The whole week,
when it was over, seemed to have been a mirage.
Tiger's visit to the stables, for instance, was a bit of theater.
The invitation came from the crown prince of Dubai, General
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a potentate who dabbles in
horse racing the way Rupert Murdoch dabbles in media. The sheikh
is no slouch in the p.r. department, either. While he introduced
Woods to a 2-year-old colt he had bought for $1.8 million at last
year's September yearling sale in Kentucky, aides announced that
the horse would be called Dubai Tiger in honor of the golfer.
"Tiger Woods and Godolphin [his horse stable] share a passion to
be the best," said Sheikh Mohammed, "and we hope Dubai Tiger will
become an equally outstanding athlete in the future."
The colt refused to be quoted, but he let Woods pet his nose, and
he chewed amiably on the golfer's shirt. "I will follow his
progress," Woods promised.
The Desert Classic, meanwhile, gave Woods the opportunity to see
if his game was as sound as he claimed it was when he finished
fourth in San Diego and 13th in Los Angeles. "Get me on some good
greens," he said early last week. Tiger opened with an
eight-under-par 64 on the silky-smooth 7,127-yard Majlis Course.
On Friday he shot 64 again, breaking by two strokes the 36-hole
tournament record set by Ernie Els in 1994.
"Sometimes he hits shots that nobody else in the world can hit,"
said Bjorn, who played with Woods all four days and trailed by
two at the midpoint. On the par-5 18th on Friday, for example,
Tiger outdrove the Dane by a quarter of a furlong, making his
next shot, over water to the green, relatively easy. "I was going
in with a three-wood on which my feet came off the ground," Bjorn
said, "and he was going in with a five-iron."
Woods was back in form, and while no one in the field would admit
to being intimidated, there was an air of resignation among his
pursuers. "If Tiger is off top form, he's beatable," said Tony
Johnstone of Zimbabwe. "When he's 80 percent, he's tough to beat.
When he's firing on all cylinders, there's no way."
Of late, though, Woods seems to have gone in and out of form with
surprising suddenness. On Saturday afternoon he birdied holes
three through five and looked to be running away, but he missed a
short par putt on the 8th and then took four to get down from the
fringe on the par-5 10th, missing putts of four feet and two
feet. Starting the final round with a one-stroke lead, Woods
again showed weakness by bogeying the 1st hole. He failed to put
away a struggling Bjorn, who was so upset by a bad shot from the
8th fairway that he tossed his iron in disgust. "The intimidation
is disappearing," said Bjorn--the same Bjorn who shot an 82 when
he was paired with Woods in the third round of last year's U.S.
Open, at Pebble Beach. "He's still the best player in the world
by far, but he's going to lose tournaments."
Sure. But when have you seen Woods blow a tournament the way he
did on Sunday? Tied with Bjorn at 22 under on the 18th tee, Tiger
sprayed his drive far off line onto a dirt mound behind a copse
on the right. With no shot, he punched across the fairway and
into the rough on the left side, amid more trees. He dumped his
third shot into the lake, and the tournament was over. Woods
finished with a double-bogey 7 while Bjorn made par to finish at
266, two strokes clear of Woods and Padraig Harrington.
To add to the embarrassment, Sheikh Mohammed had announced
through the morning papers that he would challenge Woods to a
putting contest on the 18th green at tournament's end, with
$150,000 going to the winner's charity. "Where's the putting
contest?" asked a woman looking for a greenside vantage point.
"It's canceled," murmured the man organizing the closing
ceremony. In the end Woods hid from the cameras until he was
composed, and then sat with Harrington and watched while Bjorn
posed with the sheikh and the big silver trophy.
For Bjorn, a member of the victorious 1997 European Ryder Cup
team and winner of five Euro tour titles before Dubai, the
victory was special because he plays out of the Dubai Creek Golf
& Yacht Club and because he met his wife, Pernilla, three years
ago at the Emirates Club. The win was cathartic as well, because
it helped Bjorn erase his bad memories of the U.S. Open and--along
with his second-place tie at the British Open and his third in
last year's PGA--raise his profile in Europe. "This shows how
strong the European team is becoming," he said. "Lee has beaten
[Woods] head-to-head; Darren's beaten him head-to-head; now I've
Lest he be misunderstood, Bjorn pointed out that Jack Nicklaus,
while winning a record 18 majors, finished second 19 times.
"Tiger's got to learn to lose, and I'm sure he knows that," said
the perceptive Dane. "I have the utmost respect for the guy."
In the end, then, it was a question of perspective. You could
fault the not-too-deep Dubai field for having the wrong Price
(Philip, not Nick), the wrong Singh (Jeev Milkha, not Vijay) and
the wrong Ballesteros (Seve) and conclude that the 2000 Tiger
would have won in a walk. Or you could turn it around and argue
that Woods shot 20 under par while fighting jet lag, a fickle
putter and the lethargy that often accompanies a hefty appearance
The man who seemed to understand this best was neither Woods nor
Bjorn but Frankie Dettori, the British jockey. Dettori and two
other jockeys were posing for photographers at the back of the
Emirates Club practice range last week while Woods was
practicing. "Come over and pose with us," Dettori urged Woods.
"We'll make you look tall."
Tiger grinned but kept hitting balls--aware, no doubt, of the
dangers of comparison. This is something, this is nothing. This
is something, this is nothing.
By week's end, anyone with horse sense could see the danger
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Against the grainsAfter a poor drive on 18 on Sunday, Woods set off a little sandstorm with an equally poor recovery shot.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN "The intimidation is disappearing," said Bjorn (right). "Tiger's got to learn to lose."