DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Bragging rights are up for grabs in Dubai this week as the world's top three golfers will play together for the first two rounds of the Dubai Desert Classic. It's a shootout in the desert for Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Tiger Woods. (Woods is No. 3, in case you've been away for a while.)
\nIt's the first time the top three golfers have been grouped since the opening rounds of the 2008 U.S. Open, when it was Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, and it's the first time it has ever happened in Europe. Three years ago, Woods won that U.S. Open at Torrey Pines while hobbling on a broken leg. But since then his life and game have been shaken, and a new world order has established itself. But while the Englishman and the German are No. 1 and No. 2, it is still the American who is the center of attention in the Middle East. And even his main rivals want to see him return to form. The message of the day here? Golf needs Tiger back on leaderboards.
\nPlayers used to be asked how they felt about having to play alongside the invincible World No. 1. Fear was the common feeling. While the fear factor has gone, respect for Woods and what he has achieved is ever present. Westwood, 37, is comfortable in his own skin and swing and is used to competing against Woods in Ryder Cups. He welcomed the stellar grouping and paid tribute to Woods's impact on the game.
\n"It's a fantastic draw for the tournament and for people watching," Westwood said. "We want to make our game as attractive and glitzy as possible. In any sport, if anybody takes it to another level, which Tiger undoubtedly did, it makes everybody else up their game, which is good for the golfers that play and the people that watch it. No doubt about it, he's the reason why we all play to the level we do today."
\nHe played down any suggestion that this week is a battle for the No. 1 spot, a rank that Kaymer would achieve with a victory here. "Let's ignore the world rankings," Westwood said. "The clear and present danger is not Martin Kaymer." And nor is it Tiger Woods. "The issue for me is to play well. End of story. I'm not thinking about who is right behind me. It's irrelevant."
\nKaymer is the leader of the pack of players in their twenties who were inspired by Woods's remarkable entrance into the professional game. Thursday will be a turning point in Kaymer's burgeoning career, the first time he has played with Woods. It's the fulfillment of a dream he has held since watching on TV as Woods won the 1997 Masters. He looked and sounded thrilled at the prospect.
\n"It was one of the first tournaments I watched, and I've been playing golf since I was 15," Kaymer said. "To see the best player in the game winning a tournament like that was quite an inspiration."
\nHe clearly still holds Woods in high esteem. He paid tribute to him and chastised those who focus on his problems.
\n"You shouldn't give him such a hard time," Kaymer said. "I have a lot of respect for him. We are very thankful for all the things he did in golf. We are not enemies on the golf course. We don't like to see people suffering. It would be nice if he could go back where he was and then challenge. He's the best player that ever lived. I've seen him making shots that were impossible for me. Maybe we'll see a few of those in the next couple of days. It will definitely be a great experience for me."
\nDubai has been a happy hunting ground for Woods. He has played the event five times, won it twice and never finished outside the top five. It will come as some relief to return to a course that clearly suits him after a run of indifferent play in the U.S. Yet if it seemed that Westwood and Kaymer were conducting a Woods love-in, there were words of warning from an unlikely yet expert source. Mark O'Meara, long-time friend and mentor to Woods, is competing this week as a former champion (2004).
\nHe served up a reality check for those thinking Woods is the favorite.
\n"Is he going to dominate the way he did? Maybe yes, maybe no, probably not because the other players have all stepped up their game," O'Meara said. "But he's just way too great an athlete not to get back closer to where he once was. It's in his DNA to win golf tournaments."
\nIt should be a fascinating first two days in Dubai.