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Dubai, or not Dubai? That was the question last week as the shadow of a second Persian Gulf war crept over the Middle East. Ernie Els, Tom Lehman, Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman had all entered the Dubai Desert Classic in the United Arab Emirates, where golf's top guns get $200,000 (Lehman) to $300,000 (Norman) just for showing up. Then a showdown between Saddam Hussein and the civilized world made golfing for petrodollars look like a trivial pursuit. Until Sunday, when an eleventh-hour agreement averted war, President Clinton had planned an attack on Iraq that was code-named Desert Thunderthe latest threat to a golf event in a year already marred by evil weather.
In 1991 the Dubai tournament was canceled after Hussein's soldiers invaded Kuwait. This year European tour officials said they would play through any trouble. Dubai's Desert Classic and next week's Qatar Masters "are not in danger," said executive director, Ken Schofield. "This is a new scenario. Saddam is in his lair, and it is us talking of attacking him."
Lehman thought the dictator's lair, where weapons were said to be stashed, was part of the trouble. "If they throw a missile or two and blow up chemical weaponswell, the wind blows pretty hard to the south," he said. A $200,000 appearance fee wasn't easy to lose, but as 32,000 U.S. troops prepared for battle and Iraqi soldiers kissed their rifles for luck, Lehman withdrew from Dubai. "I got a fax saying Dubai is a safe haven in the Middle East, but as far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing," he said.
Australasian tour star Peter Lonard was another dropout. "I won't be mucking about with any bombing," said Lonard. "I don't need the nightmare."
Norman, Els and Montgomerie stuck to their agendas, though nobody was notably gung ho about Dubai. "I'm not going to take any chances," said Els. Norman flew to the Gulf on Sunday night just as the news from Baghdad improved. By Monday, Montgomerie, too, was on hand. Lehman opted for the Nissan Open in L.A. and said he was glad to be out of the Middle East, "where they hate Americans."
Lesser players saw an opportunity in the dilemma. "These are lucrative events," said Clinton Whitelaw, the 1997 Moroccan Open champion. "A bread-and-butter pro like me might make some big money" if the stars chose discretion over dollars. Pro Roger Wessels was similarly upbeat. "Prospects look good," he said after watching CNN. His wife, Kim, added, "I'm sure the European tour wouldn't dream of taking chances, so I'm not scared about Roger's going. But I'm staying home, just to be sure."
Issue date: March 2, 1998
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