Past Dubai Desert Classic champions take a stroll down memory lane

Getting the surviving champions together for the one-day Champions Challenge, an 18-hole shoot-out, was a lot of fun for fans and the players but came with a hefty price tag, writes Steve Elling.

Past champions of the Dubai Desert Classic pose with vice chairman and CEO of Golf In Dubai Mohamed Juma Buamaim, centre, in front of the Emirates Golf Club on Monday before the Champions Challenge. The 25th edition of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic starts Thursday. David Cannon / Getty Images
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DUBAI // For several amusing minutes, it looked like a school photographer trying to corral a bunch of kindergartners for the annual class photo.

World No 1 Tiger Woods had to take a brief timeout as his caddie tossed him a towel for his runny nose. World No 3 Henrik Stenson, acting like a skinny Santa Claus, patted his knee and offered Woods a seat on his lap.

The 20 surviving past champions of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic shook hands, exchanged hugs and traded barbs on Monday as dozens of fans took pictures with their cell phones during a staged group photograph in front of the Emirates Golf Club clubhouse.

The Emirates course has been nicknamed the “miracle in the desert”, but getting the past champions together in the same place was providential in itself. The players, plus the son of the late Seve Ballesteros, then adjourned to play in an 18-hole shoot-out called the Champions Challenge, which was another organisational feat in itself.

The group traded stories about the first 24 years of the tournament, stared at the forest of skyscrapers that surround the venue and gushed over the growth of the area since the first tournament was staged in 1989.

“It’s incredible, what has gone on,” said Mark James, who won the inaugural tournament.

“You can’t see the desert anymore.”

Same for the waters of the gulf. Like the buildings, the money spent to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the tournament has been stacked pretty high, too.

That was evidenced by Monday’s one-day, one-off event, which cost an estimated US$1 million, (Dh3.6m) given that players received $25,000 for participating and the total purse was $600,000. Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Stenson each finished with a six-under 66 to finish in a tie for first, winning $250,000 apiece.

That represents a bigger winner’s cheque than four of the eight victors have received at full-blown 72-hole events on the European circuit this year.

Between the cost of staging the Champions Challenge, the $2.5m tournament purse and the appearance fees doled out to a handful of top players, the inducement price tag for the week has been estimated at $8m – before hotel rooms and plane fare for top players and their entourages was added.

The shoot-out is the flashy opening act, a professional prologue. With 100 per cent attendance from the past winners, it already has paid dividends.

“We wanted to give it a completely different, upscale feel,” said Adrian Flaherty, the tournament director. “And it’s unique.”

As for the price tag, Flaherty laughed like a man who has heard the same question several times already.

“It’s a chunk,” he said.

As if the guaranteed dollars and dirhams have not turned heads already, there is another $2.5m on offer this week if anybody aces the 17th hole, a 350-yard par 4.

“Yeah, another $2.5 million always gets your attention, doesn’t it?” said Stenson, a former Dubai resident.

As far as this week goes, that was the whole idea.

McIlroy excited about paring with Woods and defending champion Gallacher

When first informed that he will tee off alongside Tiger Woods and Stephen Gallacher for the opening two rounds at the 25th Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Rory McIlroy responded: “Oh am I? Perfect.”

It was hardly a surprise, given he and Woods are the field’s star draws, and Gallacher the defending champion. These things tend to be manipulated.

“Typical European Tour,” quipped McIlroy, who finished Monday’s Championship Challenge tied-second. “Nice. I haven’t played with Tiger for a while ... I always like these draws.”

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