Every day over three weeks, The National looks back at the 21 greatest moments in UAE sports history
The picture said it all.
It was February 2001, and Tiger Woods was in the midst of the finest golf of his professional career. The big-hitting American had hoarded the game’s three most recent majors, making up a nine-win season across the Atlantic, and had sights on completing the “Tiger Slam” two months later at the Masters.
Woods wasn’t just a golfer; he was a transcendent star, occupying billboards, magazine covers and primetime television slots.
That appeal was evidenced not long before his UAE debut. Such was the hype surrounding his first appearance at the Dubai Desert Classic – only his sixth regular European Tour event and a result of a two-year charm offensive – that organisers posted a “sold out” sign at the entrance to Emirates Golf Club. It remains the only tournament sell-out in UAE golf history.
“There was a buzz, everybody was happy because he was golf at that time,” Mohamed Juma Buamaim, the long-time Desert Classic supremo, told 'The National' years later.
For much of the week, Woods felt the only show in town. At one point, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the future Ruler of Dubai, invited him and close friend Mark O’Meara to his Godolphin stables in Al Quoz. A promising two-year-old colt was promptly renamed “Dubai Tiger”.
Come tournament time, Woods was a willing frontrunner, with playing partner Thomas Bjorn, in his own words, “trying to hang onto his shirttails”. By close of play on Saturday, Woods had carved a single-shot lead, and entered Sunday as the overwhelming favourite, even though he was grouped for the fourth successive day with Bjorn, a Dubai resident.
“The tournament built around us,” the Dane told 'The National' in 2014. “It became a two-man battle for a lot of it.”
However, the unthinkable transpired. On the final hole, with Bjorn having drawn level with birdie on 17, Woods dunked his approach shot in the water that guards the 18th green. It elicited a double-bogey and a closing 72, while Bjorn parred to post a 69. The impenetrable, seemingly impervious Woods had blown a 54-hole lead to lose by two.
“There was the big fear factor of playing with Tiger at that time,” Bjorn said. “He was expected to win every time he teed it up. Tiger never made mistakes then, but he did to hand me the title. That week was pretty special.”
Woods, though, would not be too disheartened. Ten weeks later, he landed a second Masters to hold all four majors at the same time. The “Tiger Slam” was crowned.
As for Dubai, Woods would exact some revenge, triumphing in 2006 and 2008. Two years before his first win, he had cemented his link to the emirate, posing on the Burj Al Arab and launching golf balls into the Arabian Gulf from 210 metres above sea level.
It is estimated that, within 24 hours, the image featured in close to 4,000 publications worldwide. Other stunts have taken place there since. But Woods, much like his golf career, proved the trailblazer.