DUBAI: The eagerly anticipated showdown between the world’s top two players has been put on hold as defending champion Ernie Els prepares to win his fifth title of the year at this week’s Dubai Desert Classic.
World number two Els had been set for a mouth-watering head-to-head with Tiger Woods in Dubai, until the game’s best player decided on Sunday to skip the European Tour event because of international tensions in the Middle East.
The pair, who have not met so far this season, are now likely to compete together for the first time at the PGA Tour’s Bay Hill Invitational from March 20-23.
They would have met at last week’s WGC World Match Play Championship in Carlsbad, California but Els suffered a first round exit before Woods went on to clinch his first victory in the event.
That meeting would showcase the two hottest players in the game, Woods having won two of his first three events since coming back from knee surgery in December and Els winning four times in six starts this year, plus one second place.
“So far, so good,” said British Open champion Els, who also won his last event of 2002, the Sun City Challenge.
“I’ve had a really good start to my season and I’m really enjoying it.
“I am going to stick to my guns. I am doing what I am doing and, hopefully, with this form I will have a good chance against any field.”
Although several other top players, including seven-time European number one Colin Montgomerie and Australia’s Adam Scott, have also pulled out of this week’s tournament because of the possibility of war in Iraq, the 14th staging of the Dubai Desert Classic attracted a strong entry.
South African Els, the pre-tournament favourite, will face a stiff challenge from the likes of American Mark O’Meara, the former US Masters and British Open champion, and six members of last year’s Europe’s triumphant Ryder Cup team – Dubai-based Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley, Phillip Price and Lee Westwood.
Northern Irishman Clarke is in particularly impressive form, having reached the quarter-finals of last week's WGC-World Match Play Championship, suitably inspired by a new driver and improved fitness.
Bjorn, who has spent most of the European winter in Dubai in recent years, has a proven track record at the Emirates Golf Club.
The popular Dane clinched his sixth European Tour title at the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic, playing all four rounds in the company of world number one Woods and holding off his challenge to win by two shots.
Harrington, who finished second behind Retief Goosen in last year’s European Tour Order of Merit, returns this week chasing his second title of the season, following his victory at the Asian Open.
But all eyes will be on Els this week as the 33-year-old returns to the Majlis course he so dearly loves.
Last year, he fired a closing 69 to beat Sweden’s Niclas Fasth by four strokes, becoming the first player in the tournament’s history to win the event twice, following his triumph at the same venue in 1994.
Five times the easy-swinging South African has played in Dubai, never finishing outside the top eight and carding 18 sub-par rounds in 20 attempts. – Reuters