Tiger Woods' first appearance in 2001 was a hole-in-one for the tournament organisers like Mohammed Juma Buamaim, writes John McAuley, as the tournament has gained more popularity every time Woods makes a return visit to Dubai.
‘Tiger effect’ still drawing international attention for Dubai Desert Classic
It was a message of gratitude from one royal to another, so to speak. Tiger Woods, then golf’s crown prince, had just applauded tournament winner and good pal Mark O’Meara off the 18th green at the 2004 Dubai Desert Classic, when he was invited to meet Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in the majlis that overlooked the final hole.
The two men shook hands, before Sheikh Mohammed imparted: “Thank you for making our city famous.”
Of course, “Brand Tiger” had pounded a trail through the desert three years before, but it was the Sunday before the 2004 event that the world No 1 helped drive images of Dubai into households across the globe.
Woods’s status reached new heights, too. A sporting megastar – by then he was an eight-time major champion – the American found himself 210 metres above sea level, on the helicopter pad of the Burj Al Arab, and unloading heaps of his trademark Nike golf balls into the Arabian Gulf.
He had provided the emirate some seven-star treatment of his own.
“He loved the idea, because it made him special as well – to be the first,” says Mohammed Juma Buamaim, the vice chairman and chief executive of event organisers Golf in Dubai.
“Everyone is doing these things now, but to do it with someone like him was great. It can’t be repeated.”
It was Buamaim who supplied the pioneering platform. Months of groundwork, and a few airborne recces, had laid the foundations for what would become one of the most iconic shots associated with the fastest growing commercial city in the Middle East.
“First of all I had to go to the police, to take permission,” Buamaim says.
“Then I said I also wanted a helicopter, and they replied ‘you ask too much’. But I told them it was for Dubai.”
For Dubai, indeed. Within 29 seconds of the image being uploaded and sent around the world, the Financial Times paid a significant fee to use it.
It would run on the following morning’s back page, together with the headline: “Room service? Have you got any balls?”
Twenty-four hours after David Cannon, the renowned golf photographer, had snapped Woods amid the wind and the water, the picture featured in almost 4,000 publications worldwide.
It was a pretty clear corroboration of the “Tiger-effect”.
“He’s special,” Buamaim says. “He does things the right way. Although, in the end he was trying to hit David, who was hanging out of the helicopter at the time.”
Cannon recalls: “That was probably a bit dangerous.”
Woods had already given the Desert Classic some serious lift and propulsion. Months before his first appearance here, he registered the sort of season golf had not witnessed since Byron Nelson stomped unimpeded across the mid-1940s.
Nine victories through 2000, including three major championships: as the planet was gripped by fear of millennial glitches and hitches, Woods had caught the bug.
Then, little more than a month after his Dubai bow, he amassed the wraparound grand slam.
For the Desert Classic to land golf’s biggest fish, in what was only his sixth regular European Tour event, was some catch, all right.
“Tiger was at his best then,” says Buamaim, who in 2001 was general manager at Emirates Golf Club. “He was not just a golf superstar, but a sports superstar.
“To be one of the first countries to take him out as a professional was very important. It was one of those things you simply had to do.”
Luring Woods was both long and laborious. Knowing that the tournament, then in its 10th iteration, needed to shift to the next level, in 1999 its organisers set about the process of attracting the game’s prize draw, and even enlisted the government for financial support to do so.
However, it was O’Meara who unlocked the door. Having eased Woods’s transition from all-conquering amateur to peerless pro, O’Meara competed in the 1999 Desert Classic as reigning US Masters and British Open champion.
He quickly vouched for the tournament, taking place in what back then seemed, to those across the Atlantic at least, a somewhat dubious locale.
“Mark was a major factor in Tiger coming,” Buamaim says. “Because somebody like him would not come to this part of the world, especially when they looked at it on the map.
“We’re very close to the epicentre of what was going on out here with Iraq, etc.
“So if Tiger didn’t have somebody to convince him, he probably wouldn’t have come. He and Mark were very close at that time. That’s what swung it.”
Woods’s signing on the dotted line was announced in 2000, shortly after he lifted his first Claret Jug, at St Andrew’s, by a cavernous eight shots.
His arrival the following February was so clamorous, that Sheikh Mohammed invited he and O’Meara to his Godolphin stables in Al Quoz.
There, the Dubai ruler celebrated his most cherished guest by renaming a promising two-year-old colt.
“Dubai Tiger, it was called,” Buamaim says. “It was a good horse, but unfortunately it turned out to be a donkey.”
Hosting Woods meant the Desert Classic had to hit its stride, instead. The world No 1 meant more feet on the ground and global eyes on the event, which in turn necessitated improvements to infrastructure and the Majlis Course itself. Tiger taking to the catwalk prompted a hefty makeover.
“It changed everything,” Buamaim says. “It’s not only numbers, but you know there’s three times more people watching you on TV. Tiger triggered it all.”
There was a shoot-out in the sun, as well. Woods played all four rounds with Thomas Bjorn, a Dubai resident and Golf in Dubai ambassador, before Superman’s cape snagged on the 72nd hole.
Woods found trouble in the trees with his second at the treacherous par-5 18th, and dumped his third shot in the greenside lake for Bjorn to take the title by two.
“That stands out as certainly one of the most memorable things I’ve done in my golf career,” says Bjorn, a Dane of 15 European Tour victories and twice a member of successful Ryder Cup teams.
“There’s been a lot of good, but that was a special four days.”
The galleries concurred, and conveyed their appreciation in sheer weight of number.
Such was Woods’s impact, that a sold-out sign was erected at the front of the golf club, the only time in the event’s 25-year history. But Woods tends to do that.
“There was a buzz, everybody was happy because he was golf at that time,” Buamaim says.
“So he propelled the interest in golf here. Because even people who had never looked at the game came to see a superstar and then thought why not try it for themselves? He converted a lot of people.”
Cannon has long been a disciple. The Englishman has covered the Desert Classic since “it was just a square kilometre of green in the desert”, and describes Woods as among his three favourite golfers to film, alongside Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman.
“Tiger is just pure dynamic action,” Cannon says. “Everything about him, he’s charisma. Obviously, with Seve and Ernie [Els] before, this event has an amazing list of winners. But having Tiger here in 2001 was the icing on the cake.”
Woods’s return in 2004, which saw record crowds descend on Emirates Golf Club, added a few more layers to the mystique. He had been a last-minute withdrawal the previous year when, with more problems developing in the Gulf, the US government advised against his participation.
“He’s not just a golfer, you know,” Buamaim says.
Woods reappeared in 2006 to strike gold in the desert, defeating Els in sudden death. Even the television broadcast overran by 45 minutes.
“With Tiger, they had to carry on,” Buamaim says. “That’s the power of Tiger Woods.”
Three trips back to Dubai since, and the Woods phenomenon shows no signs of abating. Back at the rankings’ summit, the Californian cat is on the prowl this week for coffee pot trophy No 3.
“He’s arguably the biggest sporting name to come to the UAE,” says Adrian Flaherty, the tournament director.
“Everyone wants to come see him, touch him. To see that popularity – and it’s not just kids, it’s adults – you just don’t see that with anyone else.”
Just like the many tracks around the world that Woods plundered for prizes, the Majlis required a little Tiger-proofing, albeit of a slightly different kind.
When the Woods circus rumbles through town, everyone buys tickets to the show.
From stampedes in the clubhouse bar, to reinforced fences around the recorder’s hut, particular provisions are made for the 14-time major champion.
Outside the tournament office, where Woods likes to spend his downtime chatting all things sport, police barriers are erected to ensure some solace.
“It’s only for Tiger, but to have him here is worth it,” Flaherty says.
“Any tournament, if they’ve the opportunity to get him, they will do. Because you know the world will be turning on watching.”
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