If Tiger Woods and Dubai dared to reflect on what has happened since they were last together competitively, they would be forgiven for sinking to their knees and burying their heads in all that sand. It is fair to surmise that in this three-year period the pair have gone in for a bit of a synchronised crash landing.
Woods was king of every fairway he surveyed back in February 2008. With a brilliant 65 he overhauled Ernie Els' four-shot advantage to pick up his second Desert Classic title. He was in the middle of a startling seven tournament winning run, the longest of his garlanded career. Nobody could rival him. He was untouchable.
The world knows differently now. A sex scandal led to his life and his game falling apart. Woods has not prevailed in 15 months, the longest barren spell of his career. In property terms, his boom went bust. Dubai could obviously empathise on the score. The emirate's facade was also a great illusion just waiting to shatter.
This mirror mirage is probably best encapsulated by the part-developed waste ground to the south of the city. "Tiger Woods Dubai" was to be the first course he had designed and with palaces peering over mansions would be a $1bn residential monument to his success and Dubai's excess. Last month, it was officially mothballed. A statement from the developers confirmed what by then had become obvious: "Project suspended". The suspicion is it will not be finished at all. The desert will soon reclaim the six completed fairways.
Predictably, Woods was asked about this yesterday and even more predictably declined to comment. He did say, "We have a few meetings set up this week", but his tone was not positive. Instead, it was as it has always been – guarded. At least one thing has stayed the same in this period of devastation.
Woods has long since perfected the art of saying plenty while revealing nothing and yesterday's 20 minutes in the media centre were like the edited lowlights of his collected press conferences. "I am here to win, same as always," was about as good as it got. We did find out that he quite likes Paris, but has only been there twice. Yet there were a few brief moments of candour at the very end.
"You've had a club in your hands the best part of 33 years, do you ever think, 'I'd quite like to do something else'?" he was asked. "Yeah," he replied. "Well, what would that be? Where do you see yourself in 20 years?" "I won't be in front of you guys." "What would you like to be doing?" "I'm not telling you." "No idea?" "I know where I'll be. But it won't be here."
It would be fascinating to be let in on his life plan, just as it would be interesting to see where the game took him before he packed his clubs away. Woods used to enthral through his inevitability, but now he grips through his unpredictably. He used to be distinct from the crowd because of his superiority but now he is distinct in this crowd because of his similarity. He's out the back, down the pack and in uncharted territory, whatever he may claim to the contrary.
Rory McIlroy explained it very nicely yesterday, although Woods could well be hurt by the young man's honest assessment. "Tiger's not been playing badly, he's just been playing like a normal professional golfer," said the Ulsterman. "You know, I never played in those tournaments when he was dominating, so I've never felt that aura. When I play with Tiger I don't really feel like there's any special presence about him. He's just one of the guys."
Will he ever be anything more again? Indeed, will he ever be "just of the sporting gods" again? McIlroy isn't so sure. "If he swung it the way he swung it in 2000 I definitely think he would dominate again," said the 21-year-old. "But with the knee injury he had, it's very difficult for him to do that now. But he's working very hard with [his coach] Sean Foley, putting in the hours, and if that new swing clicks into place I'm sure he'll start winning a lot of tournaments again. But I'm not sure we'll ever see him dominate the way he did back in the early 2000s."
McIlroy, like everyone in the game, is intrigued by the 35-year-old's attempt at a sporting resurrection, as he fights with the new motion he believes will, at the very least, net him the five majors to displace Jack Nicklaus at the top of the golfing roll of honour. That is one of the reasons why McIlroy, when he completes his first round this lunchtime, will return to his room to watch the afternoon transmission. The other two reasons are Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer; the golfers immediately above Woods in the rankings. Together they will make up the most illustrious three-ball in the history of the European Tour.
Never before have the world's No 1, 2 and 3 been "drawn" together, a fact that gives the 12.20pm tee-time such a delicious billing. Woods welcomed the initiative. "It's going to be a fun pairing," he said. "Back in the States our Tour is making a concerted effort to put together some featured pairings and I think it's good for the game. That's why they're doing it here this week. It's great for us as players and it's great for golf fans."
Woods was never going to say anything else, but he would not be human, and certainly not "just one of the guys" if at least a part of him did not worry about the potential for inferiority. His swing is nowhere near the finished article – one American analyst quipped this week, "he's shifting his hips more than Shakira" – while his once legendary scrambling powers have gone AWOL. Furthermore, a rookie who partnered him in the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open last month basically accused Woods of giving up as he stumbled towards a tie for 44th in his season opener.
Little wonder, therefore, that Ladbrokes have resisted installing Woods as the favourite to "win" the marquee three-ball. Neither, however, do they have No 1 Westwood as the player most likely to record the lowest opening score among the trio. Instead the pride of place in the betting market goes to Kaymer.
Ironically, it was the German who finished runner-up to Woods in 2008. Then he was only 23 and freshly arrived on the scene. Now he is the USPGA Champion and, in many people's eyes, the main long-term threat to Woods ever regaining his mantle. With an eight-shot victory in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago, Kaymer is clearly the man Woods must look out for, if not the one against whom to gauge his own progression.
"No we don't know how Tiger will perform, but then Westwood has not enjoyed the best start either to the year," McIlroy said. "But I think we know what Kaymer is going to do. He is going to go out and play pretty well. It's up to the other two to play as well as him."
To think, not so long ago they would say that about Woods. Perhaps they will again. And perhaps it will be sooner than later. How he could do with turning the corner in the desert, at the Majlis Course where, in five starts, he has never finished outside the top five. After this, he has only three more events before the Masters.
Then there is the brand. His manager, Mark Steinberg, is in talks with prospective sponsors to replace the desertees – Accenture, Gatorade and AT&T – and is realistic about what it will take to return him to his previous endorsement mark of $100m-a-year. "We live in a society that is about second chances," Steinberg said. "And if he conducts himself the way he has been, continues his rehabilitation and performs on the golf course, I do believe he'll be back where he was before."
But Woods must perform. Or Dubai, for one, will never again offer him the $3m appearance fee to be here. That would be a lot of money to be spending on a has-been; particularly when the oil is running out and the cash is following suit. Fortunately for Woods, his own commodity still has its supply line. For now.
Return of the Tiger
Tiger Woods' record since his comeback:
US Masters: April '10, T4
Quail Hollow Championship: April, MC
The Players: May, WD
Memorial: June, T19
US Open: June, T4
AT&T National: July, T46
The Open: July, T23
WGC Bridgestone: August, T78
US PGA Championship: August, T28
The Barclays: August, T12
Deutsche Bank: Sept, T11
BMW Championship: Sept, T15
WGC-HSBC Champions: Nov, T6
Australian Masters: Nov, 4th
Chevron World Challenge: Dec, 2nd
Farmers Insurance Open: Jan '11, T44
T=tied; MC=Missed cut; WD=withdrew