x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Dubai Desert Classic in drive to recruit the big names

Despite some of highly ranked players missing from Dubai this year, and plans already underway for 2014, organisers are happy with this year's field, writes Steve Elling.

Rafael Cabrera-Bello is back in the UAE to defend the Dubai Desert Classic.. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
Rafael Cabrera-Bello is back in the UAE to defend the Dubai Desert Classic.. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images

The chief executive of Golf in Dubai has strongly hinted that Tiger Woods will play in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic next year, the 25th edition of the European Tour event.

"Of course we are interested, and we are more than sure he will come," said Mohamed Juma Buamaim, whose organisation runs the tournament. "It is a matter of some contractual things he has to deal with, because he has certain contracts that might stop him from coming. So we cannot go announcing anything until we have final approval from everybody."

Woods is a two-time champion of the Dubai event, but he played in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this year and last.

It would appear that the organisers of the two UAE events have found a unique balance among sister cities, precluding a bidding war for what likely is only one annual appearance in the country by Woods, currently the world No 2.

"If you are talking about Tiger and all, there are over 170 tournaments around the world, and they cannot play in all of them," Buamaim said. "The other side of it is, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are one. It's all the UAE. It's not in our interest to have Tiger play in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, simply because if Tiger came to Abu Dhabi, they should have a few months of promotions for that city. Why dilute it?

"It is nothing to do with bidding. Abu Dhabi deserves to get the exposure they need from that. If we brought him to Dubai then we dilute that. It is being done the right way. One year for them, one year for us."

After decades as the bellwether of the early European Tour year and the most notable event of the winter period, the Desert Classic begins today at Emirates Golf Club resembling a tournament at a crossroads. A year shy of its silver anniversary, it confronts increased competition from other European events and the US circuit.

Where Tiger tread, Ernie Els excelled and Rory McIlroy first roared, only one of the game's top figures of the moment is entered this week, the former world No 1 Lee Westwood.

"This business of certain players not turning up, that's neither here nor there for me," Buamaim said. "Because the tournament is bigger than any player. At the end of the day, there are 136 players who matter and one player does not change the whole thing."

For years, Dubai was the yardstick by which most European Tour stops were measured and the linchpin event for the region. Dubai champions over the tournament's first 23 years included Hall of Famers such as Seve Ballesteros, Els, Jose Maria Olazabal, Colin Montgomerie and Fred Couples and the future inductee Woods.

Westwood has played here 17 times in 18 years, and is a fan of the golf course and the tournament. "If you hit good, solid shots, you have a chance," the Englishman said. "It's pretty familiar here and it's obviously a lot easier to get it in the fairways. It's a good, solid test. Probably why you've had good winners around it. It is certainly one I'd like to win."

Rafael Cabrera-Bello will launch his defence of his Desert Classic title alongside compatriot Sergio Garcia and England's Danny Willett when the first round gets under way today.

Cabrera-Bello, who claimed his second European Tour title with a one-shot triumph over McIlroy 12 months ago, is looking to become the first player to retain the Dubai title.

In theory, the competition will not be quite as stiff. The past three Dubai events had three or more of the top seven golfers in the field; this tournament has seven of the top 50. Last week, the Qatar Masters had eight of the top 30, and two weeks ago Abu Dhabi drew three of the top five.

"It's amazing how quickly that Qatar and Abu Dhabi have made these huge leaps and strides as far as the quality of the event and the fields they are attracting," said Guy Kinnings, the director of golf at the sports management giant IMG, which runs 50 tournaments worldwide.

A feature of the increased competition for top talents includes the drain of elite European players towards the United States, where PGA Tour purses typically are twice as large as those on the European Tour.

Multiple player managers said this week that the inducements offered to top players in Dubai did not change this year. The decline in highly ranked golfers, then, is best explained by the changing landscape of the competition and evolving player schedules.

In a trend that shows no signs of ending, the top 28 players in the current rankings are members of both major tours, dividing time and energy between tour stops that, this week, are separated by 11 time zones. Germany's Martin Kaymer, a long-time Dubai regular and a former world No 1, is among the latest to take up his tour card in the States and is playing in Arizona this week after making starts in Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

But with plans for Woods to be in the fold, and a run at landing the 2009 Dubai champion McIlroy likely, the 2014 Desert Classic could have additional star power.

Meantime, the money on offer for players continues to rise and tournaments worldwide keep getting better. Like other leading events, Dubai is standing in an increasingly longer line with many others seeking the services of a very busy few.

"You have heard this before, but some don't understand," Kinnings said. "The aspiration to have every leading player is not practical."

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