x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lesser lights shine on Abu Dhabi Golf Championship's big stage

On the last two days of play, the place was bathed in crimson, although the player famous for his trademark red shirt on Sundays was missing in action, writes Steve Elling.

Red was the colour of the day but Justin Rose wilted, finishing behind Jamie Donaldson at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Sunday.
Red was the colour of the day but Justin Rose wilted, finishing behind Jamie Donaldson at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Sunday.

The imagery and irony were not lost. Yet again this year, officials at the fan-friendly Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship waived spectators through the turnstiles for free, provided they were wearing red, the global colour of the title sponsor.

On the last two days of play, the place was bathed in crimson, although the player famous for his trademark red shirt on Sundays was missing in action.

The tournament's two biggest show ponies, Tiger Woods and the world No 1 Rory McIlroy, both missed the cut, which is not how anybody saw the weekend playing out. After a throng of 20,000 turned up for Friday's play, attendance fell off over the last two rounds, albeit predictably.

It was an unforeseen and improbable twist of fate, for sure, though the tournament's final act was theatrical enough. It ended with the Welsh veteran Jamie Donaldson winning the tournament by a stroke after Justin Rose and Thorbjorn Olesen missed putts from inside 15 feet on the final green that would have forced a play-off.

"There was a lot of drama on the 18th green," said Faisal Al Sheikh of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority, which stages the event.

There was some tension after the 36th hole, too.

Woods missed the cut by one when two strokes were added to his score on Friday after he committed an unwitting rules violation.

McIlroy never sniffed making the cut after consecutive rounds of 3-over 75, missing the weekend by four strokes.

In addition to the appearance fees they received to play, both had been featured and feted all week in terms of media coverage, which only underscored their absence the last two days.

It was a development nobody envisioned, especially Nike, which announced that McIlroy had signed a reported nine-figure endorsement deal at Abu Dhabi's Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Hotel in a splashy news conference on Monday night.

A television spot filmed alongside Nike stablemate Woods, wherein the two playfully tried to knock duelling golf shots into every type of cup imaginable, aired all week.

As for Abu Dhabi Golf Club, they filled a few cups and about as many coffers. The tourism authority set the week's attendance at 62,000, the second-biggest figure in the eight years of the event, but a 20,000 drop from last January's record-setting turnout, when McIlroy and Woods finished second and third, respectively.

Not surprisingly, the biggest tally came on Friday, when Woods and McIlroy played in the same group for the fifth time in their past six Abu Dhabi tournament rounds.

They did not exactly bring out the best in one another.

"This is sport and we have to take the good and bad news," Al Sheikh said yesterday.

Given the shock to the system in losing the top two players, and the fact that the UAE national football team were winning the Gulf Cup competition in Bahrain on the same weekend, Al Sheikh was not complaining.

"With all the factors, the numbers showed what we are offering the community is enough to attract them to the club," he said.

As for whether the tournament got its money's worth out of the bonuses, Al Sheikh said: "For sure, whoever we bring, he is a player that cares and a player that understands the objective of the tournament, because we share the same vision - a good appearance on TV and a good appearance for the crowd.

"We have seen how they socialise in the pro-am day as well as how they tried so hard to compete. I think we can say that once we finalise all the overseas [ratings] and international media that were here ... it was very positive, also for our sponsors and title sponsor."

The duo's playing partner in the first two rounds, the three-time Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer, finished joint sixth.

He has played in seven of the eight tournaments staged in Abu Dhabi and he has seen the tournament's status tracking upwards.

Again, it will probably rank among the top half-dozen strongest events on the European Tour in terms of elite players in the field, and it awarded roughly 20 per cent more world-ranking points to the winner than did the US PGA Tour event in California.

"The field definitely became a lot better," Kaymer said. "The golf course became tougher, there are more spectators out here. Obviously, Tiger played the last couple years, so that makes a big difference."

Al Sheikh, whose organisation promotes golf across the city, said that moving the tournament to one of the newer resort venues on Yas or Saadiyat islands is being evaluated, but gave no indication that a move was imminent.

By Sunday night, there was a happier ending for one of the week's noteworthy entities, too. Nike, in fact, had a freshly signed a 23-year-old European player who emerged as a final-round focal point, although it was not McIlroy.

"It was a great week for me and I love this place," Olesen said. "I think it's one of the best courses we play the whole year."

 

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