When the call came to the home of Lt. Col. Michael Rowells, his wife Molly assumed it was a joke. Why else would someone insist her husband had won a chance to play a round of golf with Tiger Woods?
On Wednesday, the American serviceman teed up alongside the 14-time major winner at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic pro-am. The 47-year-old Mississippi native had flown to Dubai from Afghanistan, where he is deployed with the 401st Army Field Support Brigade.
2011 DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC
The Dubai Desert Classic is the crown jewel in the European Tour's four-event Middle East Swing.
“It’s amazing to watch how these guys hit the ball,” said the self-described golf fanatic. “It makes me want to go back and practice, but I have to wait until October.”
Rowells beat out 16,000 other amateur golfers in a draw before the tournament at the Emirates Golf Club. In the middle of his first combat tour in Afghanistan, where his unit is charged with logistics, the father of four scrambled to get a passport for his trip to Dubai. He used a set of clubs borrowed from the golf course.
However, Rowells brought his own caddie. Huey Hughes of Charleston, S.C., is a fellow serviceman on their Bagram Air Field military base. He said he’d been working 14-hour days for eight months.
“Here we are fighting these wars and deployed and all of sudden he wins this tournament and you are hand-selected to be caddy with a guy,” he said. “To come out and do this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Rowells hadn’t played in four months, and it showed when he hit several balls into the water. He shanked others from the deep rough despite his 9 handicap. It probably didn’t help that one of the world’s greatest golfers was looking on along with a gallery of several dozen.
“I was nervous, absolutely, for not playing for so long and everything else,” said Rowells, wearing an Army golf hat over his crew cut.
“It’s not so much intimidating as much as you see someone hit the ball so pure, so often, and you think, ‘Can I get anywhere near that?”’ he said. “They tell you, ‘Get off the first tee. Get off the first tee.’ It’s more than that. It’s almost every shot when you see a pro hit it so pure.”
Still, Rowells sank several par putts that elicited praise from Woods, and some approach shots earned a “great shot” from the third-ranked golfer. He also exhibited a healthy sense of humor throughout, at one point noting how enjoyable it was to be playing in the rough since there is no grass in Afghanistan.
“I came in wanting to play decent and I really didn’t,” Rowells said. “But it didn’t matter. The experience was so far beyond what my score would have been. The time with Tiger, and the time here at Emirates Golf Club, has just been tremendous regardless of how many balls I put in the water.”
Rowells met Woods on the putting green before they started and had a chance to chat throughout the day. Much of their conversation, Rowells said, revolved around his time in the military, including postings around the United States and helping with the recovery effort after the earthquake in Haiti.
Woods’ father Earl did two tours during the Vietnam War as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He named his son after a South Vietnamese army colleague whom he fought alongside.
“He understands the services, and that is always a plus,” Rowells said. “A lot of people don’t quite understand what we do. I think he has decent respect for the military and that is always nice. We spoke a little about his dad, some of the places he had been, like Fort Bragg, where I’ll be ending up in the next year-and-a-half or so.”
As he walked off the 18th green, Woods said he had “a great time today” playing with someone whose career path was reminiscent of his dad.
“He understands, obviously, what my dad went through,” Woods said. “He was working with a reserve unit of (special forces) guys in the early days. We have a little bit of a connection, no doubt.”
For his part, Rowells called Woods a “class act.” He said nothing -- not even the golfer’s personal troubles that made headlines last year -- would change his opinion about a man who remains his golf idol along with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson.
“I played with a Tiger that struck the ball very well, was a complete gentleman, a class act, easy going and put me at ease,” he said. “One of the larger-than-life figures was very down to earth and very accommodating to somebody that came in to do this.”