The pair strode in lockstep over the desert sand, the afternoon
sun glinting off their camouflage caps. Behind them loomed
Dubai's majestic Burj Al-Arab Hotel, a building that resembles a
billowing sail. Beyond that lay the Persian Gulf. As they
approached the 9th tee at the Emirates Golf Club, site of last
week's Dubai Desert Classic, several spectators turned and
stared. ¬∂ Oblivious to the distraction they had caused, one of
the marchers turned to the other and said, "You want to go in
for a beer after this?" And with that the two buxom Americans,
one with a top to match her faux fatigue hat, made for the
This is an article from the March 17, 2003 issue
Thus came and went what passed for a military presence at Dubai
last week, which is all you need to know about the perceived
danger in the United Arab Emirates on the eve of a U.S.-led
invasion of Iraq. When Tiger Woods pulled out of the Classic on
March 2, citing security concerns--and passing on a reported
$3-million-plus appearance fee--the tournament's viability seemed
in doubt. Never mind that the day before the No. 2--ranked player
in the world, Ernie Els, had announced his intent to play. Or
that not many other players had withdrawn from the first big
European tour event of the season. Or that, even to a populace
that's about 80% expatriate, the threat of war evoked a dread
about equal to what is normally felt for a midterm exam.
"If you kept watching CNN, you'd never want to come over here,"
said Els, who finished second by a stroke to long shot Robert-Jan
Derksen of the Netherlands. "It seemed as if you'd hear something
different every five minutes. But we'd been in contact with
people here right up to the last minute, and they assured us
things were fine. Once I got here, there was no worry."
No matter how safe and secure things felt in Dubai, though, the
threat of war 800 miles to the northeast was already casting a
pall over the European tour's next stop, this week's Qatar
Masters, which is 100 miles closer to Baghdad.
To play, or not to play? Will I be safe? Is it worth the risk?
All of the players struggled with these jarring questions, and
the answers do not bode well for the Qatar event. Played in Doha,
where thousands of U.S. troops are massing in advance of a likely
assault, the tournament hemorrhaged committed players. By Monday
more than 40 golfers had withdrawn, including headliners such as
Darren Clarke, Nick Faldo and Lee Westwood. The defending
champion, Adam Scott, hadn't even bothered to enter, despite
assurances that "all preparations, including golf course,
accommodation and transportation, are complete and secure,"
according to Ken Schofield, the Euro tour's executive director.
(The threat of a $400 fine for reneging on a commitment proved to
be little impediment.)
Despite Schofield's assurances, many of the players chose to
focus on another part of his statement, which was as ominous as
it was vague: "Additional contingencies are in place should
eventualities require." Translation: We're pretty sure we can get
you out when the bombs start falling.
That, plus a contradictory warning from Britain's Foreign Office,
which advised against any nonessential travel in the region, had
many of the players in a state of flux. "I'd rather see the tour
cancel [the tournament]," said Greg Owen of England. "The way the
Americans are talking, they're going in next week. I hope we
don't take any silly risks. It seems crazy that we'd take a risk
for one tournament. I have a baby girl and I want to see her grow
up." Nevertheless, Owen had not withdrawn as of Monday.
"If anything happens, I don't know about flights and getting
stuck there," said Alastair Forsyth of Scotland, who came in
third at Dubai. "Lots of the players agree with me. I mean, if
it's the difference between 28 or 29 tournaments, is it worth the
As for the fine for a late pull-out, "It'd be money well spent,"
Safety before commerce seemed to be Woods's credo as well, much
to Dubai's chagrin. His image welcomed arrivals at Dubai
International Airport, beckoned to drivers along the city's main
artery, Sheikh Zayed Road, and greeted patrons who had paid up to
$440 a ticket for what had been billed as the year's first
head-to-head showdown between Els and Woods.
Tournament organizers tried desperately to keep Woods in the
fold, offering to significantly increase his fee and, according
to one tournament official, acceding to a list of demands that
grew by the day, including a helicopter for trips between the
course and Woods's hotel (a 25-minute drive); a dozen bodyguards
at the course; and vastly increased security at all entrances to
the course. In the end none of it mattered, and Dubai organizers
were left to put a happy face on the proceedings.
"Tiger is obviously bigger than any one tournament and he has
committed to coming next year, so we completely understood when
he decided not to come," said tournament vice chairman Mohammed
Buamim. "We tried to turn a negative into a positive. This isn't
anything like the  Gulf War, when cruise missiles were
fired through our airspace, right overhead. This has more to do
with 9/11, which didn't help any Arab nation. I look at this way:
If your neighbor is a criminal, does that make you a bad man?"
Woods's pal, Mark O'Meara, was one of only two U.S. players in
the Dubai field, finishing 52nd. He put Woods's decision in
perspective. "It's so Westernized here, so full of U.S. and
British and German citizens, that you have no sense of any danger
whatsoever," he said. "But Tiger is a different case. He's more
than a golfer. He's a highly visible American and a symbol for
our country. He thought it best to stay closer to home and avoid
If Woods had come to Dubai, he would've found it more like Palm
Springs during spring break than a Middle East war zone. In fact,
if anyone went looking for signs of unrest in Dubai, he'd be
searching still. The capital of the United Arab Emirates is a
city of almost one million people, and the citizenry is a
hodgepodge of expatriate communities with no national majority.
(There are as many Americans living in Dubai as there are UAE
nationals.) The crime rate, according to the government, is
almost nonexistent, as are taxes on most foreign capital, making
the Emirates one big duty-free shop.
Along a 30-mile stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road, new miniskylines
have arisen bearing names such as Internet City and Media City,
housing everything from CNN and Microsoft to Pizza Hut and
Starbucks. Scattered throughout are enormous construction sites.
If the eclectic architecture and the neon don't always
mesh--think Daniel Liebskind reimagining Atlantic City--the scene
certainly speaks to the Emirates' view of the future. "The
country is really a mingling of Arab and Western cultures," says
tournament media manager Alan Ewens, a Scot who has lived in
Dubai for 15 years. "Whereas during the Gulf War you saw people
taping shut their windows, now no one really cares. People know
That's also why luring a marquee player such as Els was a must
for the Classic. American saber rattling and satellite-TV
diplomacy has spooked tourists this winter--normally packed
hotels were half-empty last week--but a last-second appeal to
Dubai residents, trumpeting Els's participation, helped buoy
ticket sales. "Ernie coming meant everything," said Buamim. The
tournament reportedly quadrupled his original $400,000 appearance
fee and even threw in $40,000 in fuel for his jet. Still, only
hours before he was to arrive, Els called Buamim and stunned him
with the news he couldn't make it after all: Els had forgotten
his passport and would have to return to London to retrieve it.
"I told him not to worry," said Buamim. "We'd work something out."
After his loss on Sunday, Els probably wished he had turned back.
Opening with an impressive six-under 66, Els tarnished sterling
second (68) and third (69) rounds by bogeying the 18th hole, a
547-yard par-5, both days. Still, on Sunday, Els held a
three-shot lead on Derksen until a four-shot swing on the back
nine, Els double-bogeying the 12th as Derksen, in the group
ahead, eagled the 13th. Els birdied 15 to pull even, but again
failed at the 18th, where the 29-year-old Derksen chose to lay-up
and then pitch to within five feet and make birdie. Els flew the
green with his four-iron second, and after fluffing his chip,
missed a 25-footer to tie.
Els, who has played seven tournaments on four continents already
this year, winning four of them and coming in second in two
others, was sanguine in defeat. "Well, I get a week off now, to
go home to my wife and kids," he said.
As Els headed off to South Africa, Kevin Na and Nick Dougherty
packed for Qatar. The two Euro tour regulars had much in common.
Both are young--Na is 19, Dougherty 20--and both made good
showings in Dubai. Na, who was born in South Korea but raised in
Diamond Bar, Calif., tied for sixth, his best finish at a major
tour event. Dougherty, an Englishman, came in a respectable 20th.
Both players were eager to tee it up again, regardless of the
"Saddam's goal is to cancel the tournament," said Dougherty
without a hint of perspective. He then added, "I'm not going to
let this get in the way of my goals. Next week might be my win.
If I pull out, I'll never know." Na had an even simpler view.
"They said [Qatar] is O.K.," he said. "Why wouldn't I go?"
Golf couldn't ask for two better troopers.
overhead," said Buamim.