DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES I High Noon in the Dubai Desert and Tiger Woods is dressed all in black. This was meant to be the time when world No. 1 Lee Westwood and No. 2 Martin Kaymer would run the old gunslinger outta town for good. Woods’ aura has already gone. This was to be the end of an era.
It certainly looked that way when the world No. 3 jabbed a four-footer past the hole for a bogey at the first. There was a time when he only had to stare at those putts and his ball would roll itself in. But age, injury and the shame of his sex scandal are torturing Woods’ swings (with clubs and mood).
The top three players in the world were grouped together the first two days in the Dubai Desert Classic. It was the first time the world’s superpowers had gone head-to-head-to head since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines when Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott (remember him?) ruled the world. This was the first time a clash of the titans had ever happened in Europe and the first time, outside the majors, that the top three ranked players have teed it up in the same tournament anywhere since 1994. History and hysterics in the making.
“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.” It was the fulfillment of a dream for Kaymer to play with Woods ever since he watched on television as Woods won The Masters in 1997.
Those expecting, or hoping, to see a snarling grudge match with heads down and game faces on were in for surprise. All three chatted, laughed and looked chilled out in the midday sun. The Ryder Cup, particularly last year’s at Celtic Manor, has brought a bond of friendship and respect between the globetrotting golfers of Europe and the United States. That’s not to say that they didn’t want to beat each other’s brains out. There were bragging rights up for grabs and points to be made.
After 36 holes and 10 hours in the scorching heat of their personal desert storm, the old world put the new world order firmly in their place. Woods finished 7-under par, Westwood 5 under and Kaymer 4 under. Not dead yet, was Woods’ message to his rivals. His imperious bogey-free 66 on Friday was his best round since a 65 on Thursday at the Chevron World Challenge last December.
There were flashes of genius that made the thousands stomping through the dunes wonder just how Woods’ game could ever lose its way at all. Take his sixth hole on Friday (No. 15). The unique fizzing sound that his driver used to make at impact has more often been a clunk of late. But the fizz was back here, lashing a drive 314 yards across the desert tundra. His encore was a soaring 8-iron into the wild blue yonder to set up a kick-in birdie. Violence and art in perfect harmony.
Yet golf, like life, is complicated and flawed these days for Woods. When he gets it right, he’s untouchable. But when he gets it wrong, he’s inconsolable and uncontrollable. Take hole No. 8 on Thursday. He ballooned a weak slice into the desert, missing the fairway by 20 yards. He exploded in a tirade of F-bombs. How bad? Think Hugh Grant in the opening scene of “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” It was the same with his putter. Woods must have “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles. His consistent inconsistency must be driving him crackers.
Friday, he limped like an old man carrying his driver like a walking stick. “I’m getting older,” Woods, 35, said with a shrug after his 1-under-par 71. There was little joy or zest about him as he trudged along, often alone, lost in his own turmoil. Then crash, bang, wallop. He thrashed a 3-wood 254 yards to eight feet at the 18th and holed for an eagle to steal the show.
It energized him for Friday’s 66. The limp had gone. Now there was only a swagger. He swung freely with power and accuracy. He fired at flags and holed putts. Golf was easy again. “More than anything l was really happy with my traj,” Woods said. Who knew he was a jazz fan?
“Lee and I go way back so we just had our normal chitchat,” Woods said. “And it was nice to get to know Martin. We were all focussed on our game so there wasn’t a lot of talking but giving each other the needle was pretty good.”
Woods got his close-up view of a future world No. 1. Nothing bothers Kaymer. He treats birdies and bogeys like Kipling’s twin impostors. “Bit of a plod,” was Westwood’s summary as he continued to plod along as world No. 1.
But for Woods, the golfer formerly known as the world No.1, it’s a case of brilliance or bunkum. His Saturday round of even par in howling winds that drew him to within one of the 54-hole lead, was more large dollops of both.
Genius or tantrums. And it’s fabulous to watch.