DUBAI // Tom Watson's belated first visit to the UAE is helping to fill the Desert Classic void created by the tournament's top attraction, Tiger Woods, being absent for the second successive year. Watson, whose conduct on and off the golf course has never been short of exemplary over an extended playing career spanning four decades, had some strong words of advice for the latest player to succeed him at the top of the world rankings on the eve of the 21st staging of the region's original European Tour event.
Unsure of when Woods - triumphant on two of his last three visits to the Emirates club - will make his belated return to the professional circuit, he urged the sporting superstar to "clean up his act" if and when that career resumption materialises, possibly as early as the Accenture Matchplay in two weeks' time. "I feel that he has not carried the same stature as some of the other players that have come along like Jack [Nicklaus] or Arnold [Palmer] and the Byron Nelsons and Ben Hogans of this world in the sense that there has been [bad] language and club throwing on the course.
"You can grant that type of behaviour to somebody who has not been out here very much but I think he needs to clean up his act and show respect for the game that people before him have shown." Watson, who has won eight major championships compared to Woods's 14, urged the disgraced world No 1 to "show some humility" when he returns to the public gaze after a spell in hiding following sordid revelations about his private life.
"If I were him I would not make my first public appearance on a golf course," suggested Watson in similar vein to what the Australian Geoff Ogilvy had recommended on the eve of the Abu Dhabi championship two weeks ago. "I would do an interview with somebody and say 'you know what, I screwed up. I admit it and I'm going to try to change'. If you are in that situation that is what you have to do." Those powerful but well-meaning words would have been coming from the mouth of the reigning British Open champion but for one agonising missed putt at Turnberry last July.
Watson, six weeks short of his 60th birthday, had stood on the verge of his sixth Open triumph in the middle of the 72nd hole of that epic championship, only to hit his adrenaline-fuelled approach shot on to the green and then off the back of it. The ensuing chip back left a teasing eight-footer which by his own admission was "a lousy putt", but the squandering of such a glorious history-making opportunity has not brought too many sleepless nights for the philosophical American.
"I've had lots of disappointments and that was another," he said. "But I have had lots of victories to counter-balance that," he added, referring to the 97 various titles that have come his way. "So it tore my guts out for a short period of time and then I got on with my life." Watson's gallant attempt to defy the odds at Turnberry is comparable to the seemingly impossible task he faces on his Desert Swing debut. He maintained that it will be even harder for him to come out on top here against another quality line-up headed by Europe's top two, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, the former world No 3 Paul Casey and the winners of the first two Gulf events Martin Kaymer (Abu Dhabi) and Robert Karlsson (Doha).
"I had a home course advantage at Turnberry, having won there twice and competed well on it five times but I'm at a disadvantage here," he reasoned. "Guys like Mark O'Meara [his fellow American veteran who is a former British Open and US Masters champion] have played this course 12 times and know the breaks on the greens and how the wind comes off the ocean at 11 in the morning. "I don't know any of that, but I've already learned one key thing: you put the ball in the fairway and it becomes a pretty straightforward golf course. That's what I will be aiming to do."