Rather than celebrating the demise of Tiger Woods, the world’s top two golfers are almost begging him to give them a fight at this week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer could be forgiven for wanting to put some space between themselves and the always dangerous Woods at the Emirates Golf Course. Instead, they both say the third-ranked Woods remains the biggest draw in professional golf and returning to the form that saw him win 14 majors can only be good for the game.
2011 DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC
The Dubai Desert Classic is the crown jewel in the European Tour's four-event Middle East Swing.
“When I’m not playing a tournament and I’m watching, say, somewhere in the States, I’m watching how Tiger is playing,” the No. 1-ranked Westwood said. “I’m seeing if he’s playing well. He’s exciting to watch for everybody.”
The three will be paired together for the first two rounds, playing in the morning on Thursday and the afternoon on Friday. It is the first time since 1994 that the world’s top three golfers are playing together in a European Tour event.
Woods’ five-tournament winning streak at Torrey Pines ended last month, after a final-round 75 left him in a tie for 44th.
It was Woods’ worst start to the season since turning professional and follows a year in which he failed to win at least one tournament for the first time in his career and his marriage ended following extramarital affairs. His struggles on and off the course have raised doubts about whether Woods at age 35 will ever regain his dominance, especially considering the rise of such players as the 26-year-old Kaymer.
But Kaymer insisted such talk was premature.
“He’s the best player in the game,” Kaymer said. “At the moment, Lee and me, we are No. 1 and 2. But in every golfer’s mind, he is the best player in the world. And it would be fantastic if he can get back to where he was and then we challenge him.”
The German said he would relish the chance to play alongside Woods for the first time.
Kaymer said the media shouldn’t give Woods “such a hard time,” adding that he has a lot of respect for him and “we are very thankful for what he did for golf.”
“We are not enemies on the golf course. We don’t like to see people suffering,” Kaymer said. “Of course you want to win on Sunday, but we don’t like to win a golf tournament when somebody screws up.
“The way I won in Abu Dhabi, winning by eight shots, that’s a great win and that makes me happy. But it would not make me happy if Tiger finishes with a double bogey and an 89 and I win by one (stroke).”
Mark O’Meara, a friend of Woods who was also playing in Dubai, predicted Woods will pick up several wins this year and possibly even a major despite his recent form.
“Even last year, he hadn’t really played much and was not in his best form but he played well at Augusta so I don’t see it as unrealistic for him to win two to three tournaments and win a major,” he said.
“I’d never underestimate what Tiger is capable of doing. He may not be swinging the best. He may not be the most confident player right now. But saying all that, Tiger being Tiger, he has fought back before and he will fight back from this.”
Woods received a slight boost on Tuesday when he and O’Meara won the nine-hole, par-3 Challenge Match by two shots from Westood and Miguel Angel Jimenez in the greensomes format. Noh Seung-yul and Jeev Milkha Singh were a further shot back.
While much of the attention is on Woods this week, he is not alone in having a dreadful start to the season. Westwood finished 64th in a European Tour event in Abu Dhabi last month then missed the cut in last week’s Qatar Masters.
Westwood, who replaced Woods at the rankings summit in October, attributed his troubles to a lingering calf injury and time off over Christmas. He said he’d been on the practice range since Qatar and felt he had gotten the kinks out of his swing.
“When you don’t work on your swing, you go back to your faults, and that’s what’s happened the last couple of weeks on tour in Abu Dhabi and Qatar,” said Westwood, who on Thursday was given lifetime membership on the European Tour. “I needed to do a little bit of work on that, and I’m starting to get a bit of it in place. My game feels like it’s almost ready to go this week.”
Westwood could lose the top spot this week if Kaymer wins and he finishes lower than second, and if Kaymer finishes second and Westwood is out of the top 10. If Kaymer is tied for second, he could still become No. 1 if Westwood finishes out of the top 36.
Woods could leapfrog Kaymer if he wins and Kaymer finishes outside the top five.
Neither Kaymer nor Westwood said they were thinking about the world rankings, insisting their priority was winning the tournament.
“Let’s ignore the world ranking. The clear and present danger is not Martin Kaymer,” Westwood said. “The issue for me is to play well, get my game in better order than it has been the last two weeks and try and win the Dubai Desert Classic. End of story.”