Dubai Desert Classic turns 25 in style

Stephen Gallacher of Scotland tees off on the 18th hole during the Champions Challenge match as part of the 25th Anniversary Celebrations at Emirates Golf Club on January 28, 2014 in Dubai, UAE. (GETTY)

The Dubai Desert Classic celebrates its 25th anniversary this week with another flourish - in keeping with a tournament that blazed a trail for European Golf and indelibly marked sport in the Gulf region.

A quarter of a century ago in 1989, Dubai was little more than a sleepy UAE trading post with a couple of high-rise buildings and almost no standing or profile in sport.

But led by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, ambitions were high and the starting point was the development of the region's first all-grass golf course at Emirates Golf club, hewn out of desert scrub on the long road out to Abu Dhabi.

Eyebrows were raised when the European PGA Tour accepted an invitation to stage a tournament, known initially as the Karl Litten Desert Classic, far from its heartlands in western Europe.

England's Mark James was the first winner of what was initially a fairly low-key event.

But with its iconic Arab tent clubhouse, spectacular layout and finishing hole and the superb early year weather, television coverage soon had the golfing world sitting up and paying attention to what was heppening in Dubai.

The big names in golf started to beat a path to the emirate. Seve Ballesteros won in 1992, Ernie Els in 1994, Freddie Couples in 1995 and Colin Montgomerie the following year.

And then the biggest name in world sport, Tiger Woods, descended on Dubai for the first time in 2001, for a reported appearance fee of around $3 million, sparking even more international interest.

The DDC soon became a fixture on the circuit and all around the course, Dubai sprouted up at an incredible speed to become a thriving international metropolis offering the very best of business, tourism and sporting experiences.

Others in the region tried to follow Dubai's example with some success - notably the Qatar Masters and Abu Dhabi Championship - but the Desert Classic remains the jewel in golf's Gulf Swing.

"The modern day Omega Dubai Desert Classic is simply one of the greatest golf tournaments in the world which consistently attracts the planet's greatest players to one of the great modern courses," commented European PGA chief George O'Grady in the official programme for this week's event.

To mark the occasion of the 25th anniversary, organisers invited all 21 previous winners - Els won three times and Woods twice - to take part on Tuesday in a special Champions Challenge, an 18-hole stroke-play showpiece.

The only former winner missing from the line-up was Ballesteros, who died from a brain tumour at the age of 54 in May 2011. But his son Javier, who made his debut on the Challenge Tour in April last year, was invited to take his place.

Also invited to take part in the tournament proper was 53-year-old Englishman Barry Lane, the only ever-present in the 24 previous editions, having finished sixth in the inaugural 1989 tournament.

Now playing on the seniors tour, Lane accepted the invitation but said it would be his last.
"Realistically, if I play my best I could finish in the top 10, but I would have to play my very best. This course is very long for me now," he said.

Also back at Dubai, but after an absence of two years, is world number one Woods, who opened his season last week at the Farmers Insurance Open in Torrey Pines by missing the secondary cut on the Saturday after shooting a 79.

He will be joined by world number three Henrik Stenson, number six Rory McIlroy and defending champion Stephen Gallacher.

Gallacher is paired with Woods and McIlroy for the opening two rounds of the 25th Omega Dubai Desert Classic which gets under way on Thursday, marquee trio going out 0805 from the tenth tee.

In a tournament awash with former champions, the 2004 winner Mark O’Meara returns to the Majilis Course alongside David Howell, who himself won the title in 1999.

The Englishman is one of the only two players to have won this title at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, the other being José Coceres the following year.

Last week’s runner-up Mikko Ilonen, who lost in a play-off to Sergio Garcia at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters, rounds off that group, starting day one on the back nine at 0745.

Off after Gallacher, McIlroy and Woods will be another former winner here, Rafa Cabrera-Bello. He will be joined by two time Wales champion Jamie Donaldson and BMW PGA Champion Matteo Manassero at 0815 from the tenth.

In the second half of the draw, the strong groups keep coming, with Thorbjørn Olesen, Robert Karlsson and 1998 winner José María Olazábal off the first at 1155.

They’ll be followed by the equally eye-catching threesome of Joost Luiten, Francesco Molinari and 2010 champion Miguel Angel Jiménez at 1215.

The most riveting line up of the afternoon section is arguably a trio of Dubai specialists, namely Thomas Björn, Ernie Els and Henrik Stenson. All have tasted success here in the past, and will tee off the first on Thursday at 1225.

Rounding out the notable players to be taking part this week is the son of the 1992 winner here, Javier Ballesteros. A special invite from the tournament, the 23 year old amateur will represent his father this week alongside Wayne Westner, who himself won here in 1993, and Denmark’s Soren Hansen.
 

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