x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tiger Woods is still golf's biggest draw

'He is a giant of the sport,' says Giles Morgan, head of sponsorship at HSBC, as record crowds are expected at the National Course for Tiger Woods' debut in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.

Abu Dhabi will be Tiger Woods' only event in the Middle East in 2012, where he will reportedly be paid around US$3 million.
Abu Dhabi will be Tiger Woods' only event in the Middle East in 2012, where he will reportedly be paid around US$3 million.

Stop the presses: the world No 25 is coming to play in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship!

He has not finished higher than fourth in a PGA Tour event in two years, and his game is in transition.

Nevertheless, he is said to be getting a cool US$3 million (Dh11m) for turning up in the capital, after a pursuit of him which has its origins more than three years ago.

Looking at the bare facts of the matter, the Tiger Woods Effect does not really have that much going for it, at the moment.

It is not like the Championship is exactly struggling for stardust, anyway. The players who hold the top four places in the world golf rankings - Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer - are all confirmed to play.

That fact is reflected in the signage at the course. In the main artwork for the event, Woods is lurking in the background, hunched behind the clubhouse, while Europe's "Big Four" cut more prominent figures in the foreground.

This week's tournament will be peopled by the second-best field ever to have played a European Tour event, outside the majors or the World Golf Championship, judged by player rankings.

Had Paul Casey not been forced to take two months off from the game after dislocating his shoulder in a snowboarding accident, it would have trumped the previous best, which was last year's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

They are impressive statistics. So, why the need for Woods?

"He is a superstar," Peter German, the tournament director, said. "Not everybody has had the chance to come and see him, and he is still very, very attractive."

Clearly, Woods remains a lure. German says that, while advance tickets sales to date are up on previous years, that is not an especially significant gauge in a sport where pre-booking is not essential, given that the course is never likely to breach capacity.

Around 40,000 people attended last year's tournament, and the organisers are hoping to double that tally this time. While the Woods Effect may have different characteristics to its pre-2009 vintage, it is still a force.

"I have not been to watch the Abu Dhabi Championship at all in all the years it has been going on," said Miki Mirza, a Pakistan-born Canadian, who is one of the leading amateur golfers in the UAE.

"I have always just gone to the Dubai Desert Classic or the Dubai World Championship, but for the first time I will be going to check it out - because of Tiger.

"His presence does make a difference. All the other players - Westwood, McIlroy - we usually see them anyway at the Classic or the DWC."

Abu Dhabi will be the only competitive engagement for Woods in the Middle East this year, and it says much that he opted to miss his usual season debut, at Torrey Pines, to play here. The last time he was spotted on these shores, last February, he departed under unpleasant circumstances and with a fine for spitting on a green at the Classic.

Khalid Yousuf, the young Emirati amateur player, has twice played at the Dubai Desert Classic on a sponsor's invite, once when Woods was in the field, once not.

"I didn't feel a difference," said Yousuf, who will be attending as a spectator this weekend, with the draw for him being his UAE national team colleague, Abdullah Al Musharrekh, rather than Woods.

"He is Tiger. He keeps to himself, and he doesn't really effect anyone else. I don't think I saw him once. He was No 1, and I was an amateur, ranked lowest in the field, so we were at totally opposite tee times and schedules."

Woods remains the engine that drives the sport's worldwide popularity, and stateside awareness of this tournament is likely to be wholly dependent on how he fares.

ESPN are sending their leading golf writer, Bob Harig, to cover the event, but not many other US media outlets will staff the tournament this week.

"I do think that if he wins, the victory will be played up significantly, even if the initial coverage of the tournament is light," said Damon Hack, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and golf.com.

"The better Tiger does day to day, the more people in the US will gain interest. And if he wins, I think it will bode well for his revival, since it would be his first win against a full field since the scandal.

"It would be another step on the road back to where he believes he can go."

It was the November 2009 scandal surrounding his private life which changed the nature of the Woods Effect. His on-course performance suffered in the fallout, but by the end of last year there were signs he was heading back towards his best.

His win at the limited-field Chevron World Challenge in December may have been minuscule when set against the triumphs of the past, but it was his first victory of any sort in two years. Redemption is a long way off, but people want to be able to say they were there when his revival truly started.

"Now, all of the issues are under the bridge and gone, and the world wants to see if the Tiger Woods of old can come back," said Giles Morgan, the head of sponsorship at HSBC.

"What makes it so fascinating now is you have this new generation of players. The game of golf has become extremely competitive.

"What Tiger Woods finds himself coming back into is a landscape of some really talented sportsmen. If you are a sports fan, it is the ultimate in terms of the set up for [this tournament]."

Morgan likens the impact Woods has on bringing attention to the tournaments in which he plays to that of David Beckham in football. Whether he is good, bad or indifferent, people just want to be able to say they have seen him.

"Is Beckham the greatest footballer that ever lived? Definitely not, but people still come to watch because he is a big celebrity," Morgan said.

"Tiger is such a giant of the sport that people would still have come to watch. What is so fascinating is the way he has been working on his game and getting his life into order, I know that he sees 2012 as the year he wants that all to pay off."

 

pradley@thenational.ae

Ticket information, s14

 

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