Tiger Woods is No 3 in the world behind Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, but he's still the biggest crowd draw in the star-studded threesome that tees off today at the Majlis course.
Westwood, Woods and Kaymer will lure in crowds
DUBAI // Tiger Woods has, for most of his career, been the biggest crowd-puller in golf. He is guaranteed the largest gallery of the opening stages of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic which starts today on the Majlis Course, but this time he owes some of that pulling power to his playing partners.
Rarely has Woods been outflanked in a tournament match-up as noticeably as he is today when he steps on to the first tee with Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. Officially, he is the third-ranked member of that threesome. Unofficially, it is a different matter.
Despite Westwood's steady rise to world No 1 status, and despite Kaymer's more spectacular rise to No 2, it is Woods who still carries the charismatic X-factor.
A barren year on the course after his highly-publicised off-course issues has led to suggestions that the world has seen the best days of arguably the greatest golfer in history.
But fans refuse to accept that notion and many of those who arrive at Emirates Golf Club in time for his 12.20pm appearance on the first tee will be wondering if they will witness a career renaissance of the man who has won 14 major championships and still targets Jack Nicklaus's all-time record of 18.
Less committed supporters will be wondering whether they are going to be presented with further evidence that the Woods aura is disappearing along with his dominance, and whether the new order, led principally by Kaymer, is about to take charge.
All of which makes Woods's long-awaited return to these parts - he has missed the last two Dubai Desert Classics after winning for the second time in 2008 - more fascinating than any of his previous visits.
Kaymer, who has made great progress since achieving his career breakthrough by winning last year's US PGA Championship, was indignant when asked about Woods's struggles.
The German, 26, called for respect for a golfer who has done more than anybody to carry the sport into the new millennium.
At 38, Westwood is three years older than Woods and a frequent playing partner at key events on both the European and PGA tours, is another who was almost apologetic for usurping Woods in the rankings.
Woods claimed to be unconcerned by the loss of his No 1 status after more than five years of dominance.
"Winning tournaments again is what matters more," he said. "That's how I got to No 1 in the first place and that is the way to get back there."
Asked about his state of mind as he continues to rebuild his reputation after the break up of his marriage, he said: "I feel happy and certainly balanced, so that's a good thing."
As for his golf, his main focus is on a restructured swing. "That's a complete change so that's going to take some time to get right," he said.
The stage-managed summit meeting of the world's top three borders on a tournament within a tournament for the first two days and it will be interesting to see whether all three can justify top billing and stay together for the serious business on Saturday and Sunday.
To remain together as the last men out on Sunday afternoon they will have to outshine a line-up that features 10 other former holders of the distinctive Coffee Pot trophy.
That list of former champions is headed by Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who has climbed to seventh in the world rankings since his 2009 triumph, and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who captured the title 12 months ago after a three-hole play-off with Westwood.
Thomas Bjorn, who won in Qatar last week, a decade after beating Woods in a head-to-head battle here, will also fancy his chances, as will Henrik Stenson, the 2007 champion. Playing together over the first two rounds are Colin Montgomerie, the captain of the victorious European Ryder Cup team, and Jose Maria Olazabal, his successor.
They won here in 1996 and 1998 respectively.
Other previous winners trying to roll back the years are Mark O'Meara - who yesterday led a team of amateurs to win the pro-am at Emirates Golf Club - Australia's Richard Green, England's David Howell and Robert-Jan Derksen of Holland.
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