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10 June 2023

No Woods, no worries

Sergio Garcia is the highest ranked entrant in this year's Desert Classic and will want to capitalise on Tiger's absence. (GETTY IMAGES)

By John McAuley

The Tiger may not be on the prowl in Dubai next week, but this year's Desert Classic is sure to attract much media attention.

The reasons for which are threefold: Firstly, it is the 20th edition of the annual event and the occasion could be marked by all 16 past champions – Ernie Els has taken the title three times, Woods twice – visiting the emirate to celebrate its anniversary, provided invitations are accepted of course.

Secondly, the inaugural Race to Dubai has shifted the focus of the Tour to the Middle East and the emirate's ability to house the world's greatest golfers will be under scrutiny.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most intriguing factor, is the imminent appointment of the 2010 Ryder Cup captain. Nick Faldo's successor looks likely to be chosen at a European Tour meeting here on the eve of the tournament, with Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal seemingly involved in a two-way tussle for the position.

Montgomerie, part of the 17-man delegation charged with selecting the next captain, emerged as a shock favourite to land the honour at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship last week and his non-committal to questions on the subject was conspicuous in itself.

Olazabal seemed to be in the driving seat, but the Spaniard's eagerness to occupy one of Europe's 12 team places at Celtic Manor looks to have acted against his chances of leading the side from the golf buggy. His decision to play in the Desert Classic is a significant one too: Jose could be trying to prove he can qualify for the team on merit.

It's certainly an interesting sub-plot when all eyes focus on Dubai. Sergio Garcia, the world No2, leads the 120-strong field as they attempt to succeed Woods, the reigning Desert Classic champion and world No1, in taking his title. The winner of 14 Majors clinched the trophy in typically robust fashion last January, coming from four off the pace to shoot a stunning final round 65. The highlight: his 25-ft birdie putt on 18 to seal a one-stroke victory.

It was Woods' second triumph in four attempts in the emirate and the cast of 2009 could be quietly thanking the Californian for not rushing his rehabilitation from reconstructive knee surgery. His absence should spur the rest of the field.

Els, who led the tournament going into the final round last year, will not have to worry about Tiger sinking his teeth into another chunk of the Majlis course. The 'Big Easy' was five holes up on his rival before Woods shot an incredible six-under 31 on the back nine, but returns this year to a course he knows well.

The triple-Major winner holds the course record – courtesy of a superb 61 on way to securing his first Classic crown in 1994 – and joins the Desert Swing at its concluding tournament having enjoyed recent golfing jaunts to South Africa and Hawaii.

Without Tiger, his main threat could come from Garcia. The 29-year-old will look to close the gap in the world rankings – he sits 30 points behind Woods – but he admitted to Emirates Business last week that the Desert Swing gives him a chance to fine tune his game for the US Masters in April.

"It's a great start to the year here because of a lot of things," said the Spaniard after posting a 16-under par total in Abu Dhabi. "Good courses, good weather and very good fields so it's all very positive and just a nice way to start the year and get things going.

"I'm a fan of the Emirates course as it's a nice course that gives you lots of options on how to play it. You can be really aggressive and shoot a really low score, but if you're a little off target you're going to struggle. It's got a good mix on it and these tournaments are definitely good to get rid of the rustiness."

Any such complacency would surely have been pounced on by the titanic Tiger in Dubai.

His absence may cause some disappointment among the 62,000 spectators that are expected to line the fairways of the Emirates Golf Club, but be sure the rest of the field won't share their dismay.