x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Ravi Shastri is happy to see Tiger Woods back at Dubai Desert Classic

The India cricket legend was among the thousands of spectators and joins many professionals in their praise for golf's most famous player.

Tiger Woods hits a tee shot during the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic yesterday.
Tiger Woods hits a tee shot during the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic yesterday.

As Tiger Woods stood on the first tee, staring down the fairway, thousands were thronged around him, standing still and in near absolute silence.

They spoke in whispers as the biggest brand in golf practised his new swing, but when the announcer introduced Woods, the "2006 and 2008 Dubai Desert Classic champion", a loud cheer rose from the crowd.

There was silence again as the American stood over the tee to start his third round after a 71 on Day One and a blistering 66 on Friday. Woods then whacked the ball.

"Oh my god," gasped a boy, perched atop his father's shoulders. Clapping erupted all around, and then the bustle towards the next vantage point began.

Among the crowds were a few gentlemen who had been huge entertainers themselves. Brian Lara, the "Prince of Trinidad" and one of the greatest batsman in the world of cricket, was watching.

Separated by a few thousand heads from him stood a tall, rugged man wearing a straw hat. In his heyday, he wore the "Champion of Champions" crown and the cricketing world knows him by the name of Ravi Shastri.

A former India all-rounder, Shastri appeared in 80 Test matches and 150 one-day internationals, and is now one of cricket's most respected television commentators.

"It is my fourth or fifth time at this event and I love it," said the former cricketer. "The mental aspect of the game fascinates me and I couldn't help notice how Tiger developed a spring in his stride [on Friday]."

Woods, winner of 14 majors, has slipped down the world rankings over the past year because of injuries and trouble in his private life. He is currently world No 3 behind Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. He has not won a tournament since November 2009.

Still, looking at the people following him, there can be no doubt about who is the headline act in the world of golf. The numbers at the gates prove that, as well.

Last year, when Woods was absent from the Dubai Desert Classic, 4,791 fans had come for the first round; this year, that figure was 5,922. For the second round, there were 7,251 spectators last year; this Friday there were 9,056.

"It is great to see him back," Shastri said. "Everyone has his ups and downs in life, but let's not forget he has been a true champion. I think he is just one tournament away and he will be right back in the thick of things."

Woods definitely seems to be getting his act together, gradually. At his last tournament, in Torrey Pines near San Diego, he played strongly in the first two rounds with two 69s, but fell away on the last two days with a 74 and a 75.

He seemed to be facing a similar meltdown yesterday, dropping four shots on the front nine before he recovered to finish with a par for the day, which keeps him in the hunt for his third Dubai title at seven under.

Being a former sportsman, Shastri can appreciate the difficulties that Woods is facing in forging his comeback.

"You have doubts and you are not your usual self," he said. "So it was good to see him being his aggressive self, especially that shot he played on the first day on the 18th to get the eagle. That was Tiger at his very, very best."

Shastri also has no doubt that golf still needs Woods for the sport to keep growing.

"He has taken golf to another level," he said. "Let's not forget that, despite whatever has happened in his personal life. No one is perfect.

"It's just a case of remembering what he has done and it's not just the fans who remember that, it's the players who he has played with who realise he has taken golf to another level and they have benefited from it.

"So I will be surprised if each one of them wouldn't want him to come back and be at the top because he has transcended sport and he will never be forgotten."

Shastri is right about what the golfers want. From Westwood to Kaymer and Rory McIlroy, seemingly every golfer would like to see Woods back at his best.

"He's the best player in the game that ever lived," Kaymer said. "Honestly, without him we would not play the tournaments that we do. We would not have so many sponsors, the media interest and, in general, the interest in golf. So I think golf needs Tiger Woods, yes."

Said Mark O'Meara, the two-time major winner from the US: "I believe in my heart that Tiger has been great for the game. He's brought a tremendous amount of excitement, a lot of notoriety to the game that maybe 12, 15 years ago was not there and so, relatively, everybody has benefited from that, himself included."

Westwood said: "In any sport if anybody takes the sport, which Tiger undoubtedly did, to another level, it makes everybody else up their game, as well, which is good for the golfers that play, the sport itself, and the people that watch it, as well, as an entertainment spectacle.

"When I'm not playing a tournament and I'm watching, say, somewhere in the States, I'm watching how Tiger is playing. I'm seeing if he's playing well. He's exciting to watch for everybody."