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21 May 2024

Tiger-less Desert Classic is still a roaring success

By Colin Simpson

Everywhere you go in the world these days there is gloom, and yesterday not even the Dubai Desert Classic could escape it entirely. The opening day began shrouded in fog, which delayed the start by two hours, 40 minutes. But by 10am it had lifted to reveal Emirates Golf Club's Majlis Course in pristine condition. And as the players began to tee off and the sun came out it was soon business as usual at the Desert Classic.

Well… not quite business as usual. For there was an elephant, or rather a tiger, in the room – or should that be gloom? For titleholder Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest golfer ever, was missing because of injury.

Many feared the Desert Classic would just not be the same without the great champion. But, as is the way with sport, others stepped forward to claim the limelight.

The unheralded Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano raced to five-under to top the leaderboard at the turn.

And one of the early groups featured a classic youth-versus-experience line-up in the shape of 19-year-old sensation Rory McIlroy and 52-year-old veteran Mark O'Meara. The youngster from Northern Ireland, tipped as a future superstar, won the early honours to lead O'Meara by three shots after nine holes.

Then there was man-of-the-moment Colin Montgomerie, fresh from being named Europe's Ryder Cup captain the day before. Monty played with three-times Desert Classic winner Ernie Els, one of a host of top names taking part.

Early on we saw a powerful group consisting of Lee Westwood – who delighted fans with a perfectly weighted pitch from the rough onto the 10th green – Robert Karlsson, last year's winner of the Order of Merit (now of course renamed the Race to Dubai) and Darren Clarke, who left the 13th tee chomping a huge cigar.

They were followed by Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia, Paul McGinley, Miguel Angel Jimenez… it was like a golf hall of fame.

Woods was not exactly forgotten – the giant photos around the course of him posing with the trophy last year made sure of that.

But you could sense early on that even without him we had the makings of another memorable Desert Classic. For golf, sport and the Desert Classic are not just about one sportsman, however talented. All the other elements are equally important.

This year's Desert Classic is the 20th – it has become a well-established fixture on the world sporting landscape. And major sporting contests such as this and the Sevens, the marathon and the forthcoming tennis championships have a vital role to play.

They remind us as they come round on the calendar that, however challenging the global economic situation, life continues on its way. Like the fog yesterday, the gloom will lift.