DUBAI, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods will discover just how far his game has slipped when he joins Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer in a mouth-watering matching of golf’s top-ranked three players in the Dubai Desert Classic starting on Thursday.
Woods was overtaken by Briton Westwood at the end of last year and then the mercurial 26-year-old German Kaymer, the U.S. PGA champion, in January at the summit of golf’s world rankings.
The American’s swing as well as his private life fell apart last year following allegations of multiple infidelities which cost him his marriage and a chunk of the 2010 season.
Dubai marks Woods’ second tournament of the year and his suspect technique will be right back under the microscope after he finished 44th last week in the Farmers Insurance Open after closing rounds of 74 and 75.
Westwood, for one, cannot wait for the chance to go head to head against a man who had dominated the sport virtually unchallenged since the late 1990s until his fall from grace last year, picking up 14 Majors along the way.
Woods has won the Desert Classic twice, in 2006 and 2008.
It is the first time in 17 years that the world’s top three ranked golfers have competed in a regular European Tour tournament.
“It’s a fantastic draw for the tournament and for the people watching,” Westwood told reporters on Tuesday as he looked forward to Thursday’s midday three-ball.
“That’s what people like to see. Certainly at other events where you draw the three main champions together -- in the PGA Championship -- that’s always exciting.”
Mohamed Juma Buamain, vice-chairman and CEO of Golf in Dubai, said ticket sales were up 30 percent compared to last year when Woods elected not to compete in Dubai following the turmoil that overtook his private life.
Westwood leapfrogged past the 35-year-old American to World No. 1 last October and it is the first occasion that he has since played in the same event as Kaymer and Woods, let alone the same three-ball.
“Having a player like Tiger who has dominated the World rankings over the last 15 years and also the No 1 and No 2, and playing in the same three-ball is great for the European Tour,” said Westwood.
The Briton himself is not exactly in the best of fettle having missed his first halfway cut in over a year last week in the Qatar Masters.
The trio have been joined in Dubai this week by Woods’ long-time close friend and fellow U.S. Masters and British Open winner, Mark O’Meara.
O’Meara is convinced that Woods can end his 14-month title drought and also set about matching Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 Majors.
“Knowing Tiger as well as I do, I know his heart is still on the Major championship (U.S. Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and U.S. PGA),” O’Meara, who now plays on the 50+ seniors tour, told reporters.
“Even last year he hadn’t played that much, and also not being on his best form, he played well at Augusta.
“So I don’t see it unrealistic for him to win two to three tournaments this year and also to win a Major.”
O’Meara believes Woods can also regain the No. 1 position he held for a record 281 weeks.
“There was twice before when Tiger dropped down from No. 1 when David Duval and Vijay Singh went by him,” said O’Meara.
“So he does like being No 1. He likes to be the guy at the top and he realises because of his absence and the way that Tiger has played, that he is where he is. He’s dealing with that.
“But I also never underestimate what Tiger is capable of doing. He may not be swinging the best. He may not be the most confident player right now.
“But in saying all that, and Tiger being Tiger, he’s fought back before and he will fight back again.”