ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Europe's heavyweights have jetted into the Arabian desert for an early season clash of the titans, but it may also prove to be a clash of the egos as the top four players in the World Ranking — Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer — are all playing co-starring roles to Tiger Woods, currently No. 25 in the world.
But what the heck is Tiger Woods doing at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship? Just what would it take to persuade him to turn his back on Torrey Pines, where he has won seven times in 13 professional tournaments, including the 2008 U.S. Open? Would an enormous appearance fee influence a man's schedule?
"I'd have to say yes, it certainly does," Woods said in his standing-room-only press conference on Tuesday. "That's one of the reasons why a lot of the guys who play in Europe, they do play in Europe, and they do get paid. I think the only tour that doesn't pay is the U.S. tour. But, you know, a lot of the guys play all around the world, and they do get appearance fees."
Hats off to Woods for his honesty, although he declined to disclose the exact amount of his fee. Woods has always said it's all about the W, but it's clearly all about the dollars, too.
Woods also seems irritated by dollars, namely the ones that his former coach Hank Haney is about to rack up with a book about their six years together. Betrayal from one of his inner circle brought irritation to his voice when he was asked about it Tuesday. His series of one-word answers sounded like angry punctuation marks. "Am I disappointed? Yes. Frustrated? Certainly."
Haney aside, Woods, 36, was looking fit and sounding happy. He says he is injury free for the first time in eight to 12 years, and he comes here after a victory at the Chevron World Challenge in December. But that was an 18-man invitational, and this is the real deal against the cream of European golf.
His playing partners for the first two rounds are McIlroy and Donald, and it's crunch time for all three. If Woods is going to make an impact this year, Thursday in Abu Dhabi is where the process, as he is fond of saying, begins. A strong showing against his rivals who are now atop the World Ranking would help to re-establish his place in the game. If he fails, the questions and doubts will swirl.
Woods has a point to make, but there is arguably more heat on McIlroy and Donald. Both made statements last year that Woods's era of dominance seemed to be over. Woods would surely delight in making them eat their words this week.
Those looking for enmity may be disappointed, however. McIlory and Donald get along just fine, and Woods and McIlroy played nine holes together on Tuesday. It was thought that the king and his 22-year-old heir apparent were not great pals, but they were all smiles on the fairways and greens of the National Course at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Could Woods be taking on a mentor's role, or were they dabbling in a spot of pre-tournament mind games?
Adding spice to their three-ball will be Donald's bold statement last month in Dubai, where he said McIlroy has the most talent of any golfer he has ever seen. He later backed off the remark, but the headlines had already been made. Reminded of Donald's comments, Woods was respectful of Donald's getting to No.1 and winning the money lists in Europe and the U.S., but he had a different nominee for most talented.
"The most talented player I've ever seen was Seve (Ballesteros)," Woods said. "Never seen a person do things with a golf ball he was able to do. I never saw (Ben) Hogan hit a golf ball. Never saw Mr. (Byron) Nelson hit a golf ball. Never saw Jack (Nicklaus) in his prime. But I did see Seve when I first came out here and was able to play with him a few times."
It was an impressive roster of golfing royalty, and Woods surely knows his name will be remembered among them. Perhaps McIlroy's will too when he is done. But it was clear Tuesday that Woods is not yet ready to be consigned to the history books. His second act may start Thursday.