DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Tiger Woods is already the world's top-ranked golfer and highest paid athlete. And if all goes according to plan, he'll soon be sporting his biggest trophy yet: a luxury golf course hewn from the sands of the Arabian desert.
The ambitious project, touted as the first course in the world designed by the 2008 U.S. Open champion, remains a work in progress on the outskirts of this Middle Eastern boomtown – much like the rapidly growing city itself.
But the project's chief said Monday that the first phase of the development, which among other unlikely features promises 5 million square feet of locally grown grass and more than 30,000 full-grown imported trees, is on target for completion sometime in the last three months of 2009.
"Our schedule is currently on track," Abdulla Al Gurg said in an interview with The Associated Press.
However, Gurg did leave the Dubai-based developer Tatweer some wiggle room in case the city's notorious work delays snag one of its most high-profile projects, adding: "Our key criteria is adherence to excellence."
Tatweer is a division of Dubai Holding, which is owned by the emirate and its ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The golf course project, known as The Tiger Woods Dubai, will be part of a massive theme-park complex known as Dubailand the company is building on barren desert along the edge of the city.
Gurg said the company is spending 4 billion dirhams – about $1.09 billion – to build the course and the surrounding housing development.
He wouldn't say how much Woods was being paid.
Gurg spoke following an event to showcase the project at a glitzy beachfront hotel just down the road from a man-made marina surrounded by dozens of skyscrapers, many still under construction.
Emirates newspapers have been trying to entice local buyers with full-page ads to consider one of the 197 so-called palaces, mansions and villas that will flank the course.
The project's first stage will consist of the 18-hole, par 72 course itself, as well as a golf academy and a driving range. A hotel and most of the gated housing community should be finished by the second or third quarter of 2010, Gurg said.
On Monday, Woods paid his first visit to the construction site since a recent knee surgery sidelined him for the rest of the 2008 season. He said he doesn't know when he will return to competition.
"All that's unknown," Woods said. "It's frustrating for me."
Despite its dry, desert climate – temperatures on Monday hovered around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degrees Celsius – Dubai is rapidly becoming a major golfing destination.
The city, which is banking on tourism to diversify its economy, each year hosts the Dubai Desert Classic and Dubai Ladies Masters. Back-to-back birdies on the last two holes in February left Woods the Desert Classic's defending champion.
Woods said he drew inspiration for his first course from clubs in the "sandbelt" golfing region near Melbourne, Australia. "We want this golf course to play fast, quick," he said, while remaining appealing to a broad range of players.
Woods is not the only golfer laying out links in Dubai.
An 18-hold course designed by Colin Montgomerie was launched in 2006, and another by Ernie Els opened earlier this year. Greg Norman, Sergio Garcia, Pete Dye and Vijay Singh are also working on courses scheduled to open this year or next.
Dubai developers have tapped other marquis names as well, as they struggle to make their projects stand out in an increasingly crowded real-estate market.
Donald Trump last week hosted a star-studded bash to tout plans for a new hotel on the first of three palm-shaped islands being built in the Persian Gulf.
Brad Pitt has signed on to help design a hotel of his own, while Giorgio Armani is outfitting apartments in the unfinished Burj Dubai, already the world's tallest building. And last month, a Dubai investment company announced that fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld will design homes on a man-made "fashion island" off the city's coast.
Plans for Woods' course were first made public more than a year and a half ago. But as the project and a number of other high-profile developments near completion, fears are growing that Dubai's soaring property market may be due for a correction.
Morgan Stanley recently predicted the city could face a supply glut by next year that could drive property values down by 10 percent. At the same time, the government is widening a probe into alleged corruption of a handful of prominent local companies, including some with ties to the real estate sector.
But Gurg said he wasn't worried Dubai market concerns could make it difficult to fill the high-end houses around the golf course. After all, he said, it's not everywhere homeowners can say their backyard has been designed by Woods himself.
"The Tiger Woods Dubai is catering toward a niche market," Gurg said, adding that the developers were in no hurry but were "focused on quality" to attract potential residents to the 197 exclusive housings.