Going for The Green

Huge appearance fees lured six of the globe's top golfers to a tournament in Dubai
January 30, 1995

Golf went to theUnited Arab Emirates last week to ask the burning question, "If this is theDesert Classic, then where's Bob Hope?" Well, this was the Dubai DesertClassic, the place the World Tour goes until somebody actually invents it.

The best playersin the world—six of the Sony Rankings' top eight—showed up in the globe'slargest sand bunker for nothing more than a little sun, a little fun and, oh,yes, more appearance money than you can shake a sheikh at. For the record, FredCouples won the thing, with a 20-under score of 65-69-68-66-268, but everybodyfrom here to Abu Dhabi knew who had won before it even started: swing sultansNick Price, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie andCouples. They received more for showing up ($1.3 million altogether, accordingto an American expatriate member of the Emirates Golf Club) than for playing(the entire purse was $675,000). Of course, because the European tourdiscourages players from seeking appearance money and Dubai was the tour'sfirst stop in '95, the event organizers say they merely helped Norman out withhis jet fuel—for his next 50 trips.

"Threehundred thousand U.S. dollars," the American expat said of Norman's fuelallowance. That's a lot of dirham to pay a guy the billionaire prime ministerof Dubai—His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum—hadn't even heard ofuntil last year.

"We will callit The Great White Shark Comes to the Desert," the sheikh's chief economicadviser, Mohamed Alabbar, told him before last year's event, when the DesertClassic first lured Norman. This puzzled His Highness, who at the time did notknow a Bertha from a Bedouin.

"How is thispossible?" the sheikh asked. "You cannot bring a shark to such a placeas this. It is not natural."

"I am afraidit did. not translate well into Arabic," says Alabbar. Still, the sheikhcoughed up the royal checkbook and hasn't asked for it back since.

Not that theShark and his friends didn't have to work for their money this year. They hadto play in the Wednesday pro-am, let the azure waters of the Persian Gulf lickat their toes on the hotel beach, take their significant others to buy Persianrugs (Couples and his girlfriend, Tawnya Dodd, bought 10), swarm the world'sgreatest duty-free zone (though nobody bought a Mercedes) and hit theFriday-night cruise on the sheikh's private dhow, complete with a belly dancer,three bands and a few hundred grilled lobsters. You sure you wouldn't rather beat the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson?

Couples wouldn'tsay how much he got (in addition to his $112,500 winner's cut), but he did say,"I'm not gonna lie to you. It's a pile of money." The first timeCouples made the very difficult decision to let the sheikh fill up his rec roomwith cash—last year—a friend asked him where the U.A.E. was. "I have noidea," he said. "I just know the ticket says, 'Go to London. Go toDubai.' " He and Dodd asked her son, Derek, then 12, to get a Rand McNallyand show them. Once they got there, the Couples couple liked the rugs, thesilks and the food so much that they hung around two days after Couples missedthe cut. "I had fun missing a cut," he says. "I never have funmissing a cut."

Somebody take amemo. We may have found the slow leak in the PGA's western swing. Too muchrain. Too many all-week pro-ams (two). Too many stops with more than one courseto play (four). Do you realize it snowed this week in Tucson? Hello, Dubai.

"The weatherin America at this time of year is always sort of iffy," says Price, who,speaking of total monarchy, opened his third year on top of the game with athird-place tie. "You're always having to wear a sweater and fight theweather."

"Besides," says Norman, "I want to play against the best. Fans orno fans."

Well, Dubai drew6,250 last week, but, no joke, maybe a dozen watched Norman in the pro-am onWednesday. Three watched Couples. At one point Couples torched a three-woodover a lake at the: 18th hole and two-putted for birdie. One lonely woman inthe stands applauded. Couples smiled and pointed at her.

One of the threein his gallery was Awn Aidarous, a U.A.E. national in his long, flowingdishdasha, oohing and aahing every time Couples swung. "Mr. Couples is thefine gentleman of golf," he said. "Four years ago I knew nothing ofgolf. Then, I see him on CNN. Now I am a 15 handicap."

Until this coursewas built in 1988, there was not one grass course in the Arab Gulf States.There was the Dubai Country Club, but you had to rake the green when you weredone, as it was all sand. Even now the game has not exactly caught on likehummus. Expatriates are about the only people who play. The finest U.A.E.national, Ismail Sharif, is a 12 handicapper. If you are looking for a clubchampionship to win, get thee to the U.A.E.

Dubai is bustingout with people. More than 80% of its population are expats, though it's beyondus why somebody would want to settle there. Besides the perfect winters, thedeath-defying dune buggying, the great restaurants, the taxless paycheck andthe scuba diving, that is.

Oh, and the golfisn't bad now, either. From above, the Emirates Golf Club looks like somebodydropped a Kelly green handkerchief on a vast waterless beach. One milliongallons of desalinated water per day are poured on the course. The water is aby-product of the nearby aluminum plant, which, along with most everything elsein this total monarchy, is also owned by the royal family.

"This landhas zero nutrients," Barry Carter, the course superintendent from Florida,says with a sigh. To keep the 18-hole layout alive, he has given every one ofthe 50,000 plants its own dripper. Before the course was built, the land heldone tree. Half the reason nationals go to the course is to find out what grassfeels like under their feet. "If you leave the gates open at night, thisplace will be full of camels in the morning," says Carter. "To them,this is a grocery store."

There are stillsome hiccups in golf in the U.A.E. On nearly every hole at the tournament therewas a huge sign touting the event's sponsor: DUBAL. THE UNIQUE ALUMINUMSMELTER. But there was only one scoreboard on the course. The range balls atthe Emirates Golf Club come in plastic beach pails with little plastic handles.And every now and then during the Classic somebody would look at a scoringplacard and say, "You see, Achmed, this Els just shot a doublebirdie."

But whether Dubaiknew it or not, it was treated to the finest golf anywhere on the planet lastweek. By the time the usual 80° weather arrived on Sunday, the sheikh'sadvisers looked as if they had used up a genie's wish. Couples and Montgomeriewere tied for the lead, with Els and Norman one shot back and Price twobehind—the equivalent of inviting all the winners to your post-Oscar party twomonths ahead of time. Not only that but Norman had led the first day with a 64and Montgomerie the next with a sporty 63. In all of Arabia, there was only onelittle leader board, but it was a doozy.

For Monty, Sundaywas a chance to prove that having been atop the European money list for thepast two years was not the same as being the tallest dwarf in the circus."I've never beaten a field this good," he said after the third round,and on Sunday he went out and let Couples get away from him.

Drowsily relaxedon the outside, admittedly "nervous" inside, Couples just kept going upand up the scoreboard. On the 3rd tee there were so few fans that he actuallywent behind a palm tree and, well, relieved himself. Then he went out andzipped up the tournament, birdieing that hole, hitting long irons scary closefor birdies on 9 and 12, birdieing both of the par 5s on the back (he was 13under par for the week on par 5s) and generally squashing one of the bestfields of the last 13 months into desert dust to beat Montgomerie by three. Andyet he didn't make a single double birdie all day.

"To beatMontgomerie, Nick Price, Norman on a Sunday, it's a big deal," Couples saidafterward, "whether you're at L.A. or Dubai."

Don't look now,but this could be a boom year for Boom-Boom. He has two tournaments (the LosAngeles Open and the PGA) at Riviera, which may be his favorite course in theworld, plus he's won at both Augusta and St. Andrews (the Dunhill Cup), site ofthis summer's British Open. "This could be a great year," Couples says."I expect it to be."

Els and Normanalso finished in the top seven. Langer finished last among the paid inviteesand was therefore made to take the official tour of the smelter.

The World Tourcontinues not to exist this week in Manila, where the same six stars will showup, joining Seve Ballesteros and, who knows, maybe the pope again.

In America,Phoenix will have Fred Funk.

PHOTOBOB MARTINFrom above, the Emirates Golf Club looks like a Kelly green handkerchief dropped on a beach. PHOTOBOB MARTINThough he hit some rough spots, defending champion Els again found Dubai particularly palmy. PHOTOBOB MARTINPrice, who's No. 1 in the world, is riding high on his two 1994 major titles, among other things. TWO PHOTOSBOB MARTINExpatriates and U.A.E. nationals eyed the international talent, including Couples, the winner.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)