DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It was a lovely week at the Emirates Golf Club. Palms rustled, birds chirped, pile-drivers hammered, tractors roared, construction cranes rattled, saws whined, dumpsters clanged, trucks groaned, and traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road top-dressed the ambient cacophony with a lusty baritone hum. What was vacant desert just a few years ago is now a construction project to beggar the imagination, with dozens and dozens of skyscrapers springing skyward.
It didn’t seem to bother Tiger Woods. At no time during the first three rounds of the Dubai Desert Classic did the defending champion back off a shot to glare at a Pakistani crane operator a half-mile away. Not once did Tiger’s caddie, Steve Williams, chide an Egyptian job foreman for spilling 10 tons of rebar while Tiger was over a putt.
Why the benign tolerance from the World Number One? It could have something to do with the huge contract he signed two months ago with Tatweer, a subsidiary of a holding company owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. The terms of the deal have not been released, but published guesses have Tiger pocketing from $25-45 million. Tatweer, in return, gets to name its new housing development “The Tiger Woods Dubai” and claim ownership of Al Ruwaya, the first Tiger Woods-designed golf course.
The golf course deal had been in the works for a couple of years, and local sources say that Sheikh Mohammed had to fend off a strong bid from Chinese interests, who were equally determined to land Tiger’s first course design. (“Money was not the big motive for Tiger,” says businessman and seven-time UAE golf champion Ismail Sharif. “There were other countries that would offer one more zero to get him.”) The original plans had Tiger’s course going offshore — probably on Palm Jumeirah, a cluster of man-made islands shaped to look like a palm tree from the air. Sheikh Mohammed reportedly vetoed that plan, arguing that it would be redundant to put one landmark — the first Woods course — on another landmark, the islands.
So Al Ruwaya will be built several miles inland at Dubailand, a mammoth development that has been described as “Disney World on steroids.” I drove out to the site on Friday and got an eyeful of bumpy, yellow-sand desert with dusty-green patches of scrub and an occasional stunted tree. But then, that’s what the area around the Emirates Golf Club looked like a decade ago. If Dubailand is built out according to plan, it will have 55 hotels and an operational capacity of 200,000 visitors a day.
Woods was coy when asked if he planned to spend much of his week in the desert, stepping off yardages and planting little red flags. (“I’ll probably go out to the site and take a look.”) His nascent design team, however, met with the Tatweer staff and got the ball rolling. Tiger’s man on the ground was his childhood friend and high school teammate, Bryon Bell, who caddied for Woods on occasion before going to work at the Tiger Woods Foundation. Bell will reportedly manage Tiger Woods Design from an office in Orlando, Fla.
In the meantime, Tiger has not given up his day job. He began Sunday’s final round three strokes behind third-round co-leader Ernie Els, teeing off in a stiff shamal — the wind that drives Arabian dust storms — that had much of the sand from Dubailand flying past Tiger on its way to the Gulf of Oman. It was a good wind; it muffled the racket from the construction sites and hid the still raw-looking skyline. But it was an ill wind, too, in that it blew Tiger no good. He made a careless bogey on the par-5 No. 10 and then chipped into a greenside bunker on the 11th, consigning himself to a third-place tie, two strokes behind winner Henrik Stenson.
“Well, that’s one of the worst putting weeks I’ve had in a long time,” Woods said afterwards. “Very frustrating.”
But he’ll be back. As part of his deal with Sheikh Mohammed, Tiger has promised to play in the Desert Classic two of the next three years. Maybe more, if things quiet down.