Tiger plays safe and withdraws from Dubai Classic

I’LL be there if I can walk, if I can play golf, I’ll be there — the reassuring words yesterday of Tiger Woods in the immediate aftermath of his decision to withdraw from this week’s Desert Classic in Dubai.

He was responding to a question as to whether he would play in the British Open at Royal St George's in July given the unstable world situation and the prospect that should a war begin in Iraq, it would in all probability carry over into the summer months.

"Obviously, I have to look at playing overseas, especially in that part of the world," he said in reference to Dubai. "It's a little tough for me to go to place like that at present."

Asked if his reluctance was based on his high profile, Woods didn't demur: "You have to be honest about it, yes."

There will be those who blame Woods for not travelling to Dubai who consider that the war, should it happen at all, is at least two weeks away, and that the golfer could be safely back in his Florida conclave long before the first shots were fired.

The fact is, however, Woods is one of the most famous and easily recognisable Americans in the world and would indeed be rich pickings for anybody with a grudge against the United States and from what we have been seeing, those kinds of people are just about everywhere, including right here on our own doorsteps.

Woods would have gone to Dubai if he felt it safe all advisable and was patently sincere when he commented: "I want to go but it would not be wise to go at this particular time. I had a great time there two years ago, go-kart racing, the gun club, it was great. And if it's safe next year, I will go because I want to go back. My buddy Mo (Mark O'Meara) is going and he'll give me a full report."

Woods' victory in the Accenture World Match Play Championship at the weekend should have silenced those who believed Ernie Els' sparkling start to the season meant a change at the top of the world rankings was imminent.

Tiger has now won two of the three tournaments he has contested since returning after knee surgery and normal business has been restored. They say it's the sign of a great player that he can win even when not at his best, and Woods certainly did that at La

Costa when beating David Toms by 2 and 1 in the 36 holes final.

By his own admission, he putted poorly and his game wasn't as sharp as usual, especially in the closing stages when he was seriously in danger of losing his grip on a match that earlier had looked unbreakable.

He has now completed another "grand slam" by becoming the first man to win all four World Championships, following up on holding the four major championships simultaneously in 2001 through 02.

"It's pretty cool to do that," Woods glowed. "It was physically gruelling but even more so mentally after five days and six matches. I was saying to my caddy that if we had to do this every week, a pro's playing career would be about 10 years."

He is bullish about his prospects for the rest of the season: "Tiger this year would have beaten last year's Tiger. I'm playing better."

Ominous words indeed for those with their sights set on dethroning the king.

Els has decided to play in Dubai and so, too, O'Meara. Otherwise, it is very much confined to the usual European Tour personnel with the notable absence of Colin Montgomerie, who is remaining on in the United States.

The Irish challenge is led by Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley (who has been holidaying in Dubai with his family for the past week) with Graeme McDowell, Peter Lawrie and Gary Murphy also hoping to pick up some of the 1.7 million on offer.

Clarke's quarter-final appearance at the match-play has earned him badly needed world ranking points and improved his position from 29th to 22nd.

However, he was bitterly disappointed at losing a three hole advantage over Peter Lonard, and last night acknowledged that he and his coach Butch Harmon still have a lot of work to do.

"The changes and everything I'm trying to do, it's nice to see them working so early in the season," he commented.

"Butch says it's going to take time to rid me of my bad habits but he's pleased with what I've managed to do so far. These habits were a long time building. We are all trying to do better.

"The difference between winning tournaments and finishing in the middle of the pack is not so big. It's one shot here, one shot there. So in order to achieve these things, you go off in different directions that you shouldn't do but you don't know it at the time."

Clarke is a little more vague about how much time he spends in the gym. His rather full figure captured the imagination of the American journalists at La Costa, one of whom raised the subject.

Darren jumped in quickly and quipped: "I'm a finely-tuned athlete. Can't you tell?"

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