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Tiger returns to Dubai still searching for old magic

Tiger Woods
Robert Beck/SI
Tiger Woods is coming off a tie for 44th at Torrey Pines, the worst start to a season in his professional career.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Tiger Woods rehabilitation tour arrived here in the Middle East Wednesday. At this week's Dubai Desert Classic, Woods will attempt, once again, to reclaim his golf game and rediscover his missing mojo.

Dubai once represented the other-worldliness of Woods: golf's global gladiator, jet-setting around the globe, collecting mind-boggling appearance fees, mingling with sheikhs and princes, consecrating state-of-the art courses by his mere presence. Dubai was all about riches in excess, just like Woods.

His arrival has a different feel now. Woods will still earn a reported $3 million appearance fee, the final installment of a three-appearance contract he signed with Dubai a few years back. But it's a backdated check, written in a different era: because of the twin scourges of injury and scandal, he hasn't played here since winning the tournament in 2008 and owed Dubai one more appearance.

In the intervening years, things have changed, both for Woods and for his adopted Middle East home. Dubai's economic bubble has burst. While here, Woods will have some meetings to try to figure out the future of Tiger Woods Dubai, the first golf course to which he lent his name. The construction of the luxury resort was recently shelved because of poor economic conditions. Once projected to be the greatest golf resort in the world, the site south of Dubai now lays dusty and abandoned. Insert your own metaphor here.

Woods didn't play here in 2009 because he was injured. In February of 2010, he missed Dubai for other reasons. A year ago, Woods was days out of a rehabilitation clinic in Mississippi and a week removed from his robotic apology speech. This February there's much less drama yet no more clarification about Woods's future. He arrives in Dubai as just another guy trying to find his game.

He is no longer the top golfer, either in the world or at this tournament. When he tees off on Thursday, he'll be paired with his successor, Lee Westwood, who replaced Woods as the world's top-ranked golfer last October, ending Woods's 281-week reign as No. 1. Also in the grouping will be Germany's Martin Kaymer, ranked second in the world.

Woods's top American competition, longtime nemesis Phil Mickelson, will be half a world away, frolicking near the Pacific at the lighthearted AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. Woods has avoided the AT&T since 2002; choosing to shun the unpredictable weather, the aggressive autograph seekers, the long rounds and — now — the sponsor who dropped him soon after his scandal erupted.

"I just like to come over here," Woods said. "This is fun to me."

Woods said he's excited to play in a grouping of the world's top three players, noting that it reminds him of a similar pairing at the U.S. Open in 2008, his last major victory. There's one big difference — back then he was the world's top ranked golfer and seemingly infallible.

No longer. Woods hasn't won an official event since September of 2009, an improbable 17-month stretch of futility. He seems unfazed, noting that he had a dry stretch between 1997 and 1999, winning just one event in an 18-month stretch.

"People forget," he said. "I went from '97 to '99 with only one win. So it's not like I have not been here before. I've been through stretches like this."

Credit the gathered European press corps for not breaking out in guffaws at that statement. Woods — or any athlete — has never "been through a stretch like this," a complete and total fall from grace, a shattering of reputation and apparently also of focus and invincibility.

This current drought can't be compared to a long-ago one experienced by a 22-year-old just coming into his own. Woods is now 35. He's been injured. And his entire world has been flipped inside out.

He sticks to the same bland script, in interview after interview.

Goals?

"Same as every year. Win."

Bothered by finishing 44th at Torrey Pines?

"It was good to play that event and have some of the things that came up swing-wise because this is a new swing."

Personal feelings?

"I feel good. I feel happy. And certainly balanced, and that's a good thing."

Achieving balance?

"I don't practice as much as I used to, but that's a good thing. I'm able to spend more time with my kids and that's more important than what I do on the golf course. My time is more limited and when I do get out there I really have to grind. It did put things in balance where it should be."

We've heard similar answers in recent months. Woods is balanced. He's happy. He likes to go grocery shopping and give his kids a bath. He is, to hear him tell it, not bothered by no longer being Tiger Woods, Inc.

What he isn't doing is winning. He is no longer the sultan of his sport, no longer the most feared golfer on the planet.

Just ask 21-year-old Rory McIlroy.

"I've gotten to know Tiger the last couple of years and I never saw him dominate," said McIlroy, who is also playing in Dubai. "I never played in tournaments that he played in when he was dominating so I never really felt that aura. I don't really feel like there's any sort of special presence about him. He's just one of the guys."

Back here in post-boom Dubai, Woods is just one of the guys. Times have changed.

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