"Besides," says Norman, "I want to play against the best. Fans or no fans."
Well, Dubai drew 6,250 last week, but, no joke, maybe a dozen watched Norman in the pro-am on Wednesday. Three watched Couples. At one point Couples torched a three-wood over a lake at the: 18th hole and two-putted for birdie. One lonely woman in the stands applauded. Couples smiled and pointed at her.
One of the three in his gallery was Awn Aidarous, a U.A.E. national in his long, flowing dishdasha, oohing and aahing every time Couples swung. "Mr. Couples is the fine gentleman of golf," he said. "Four years ago I knew nothing of golf. Then, I see him on CNN. Now I am a 15 handicap."
Until this course was built in 1988, there was not one grass course in the Arab Gulf States. There was the Dubai Country Club, but you had to rake the green when you were done, as it was all sand. Even now the game has not exactly caught on like hummus. Expatriates are about the only people who play. The finest U.A.E. national, Ismail Sharif, is a 12 handicapper. If you are looking for a club championship to win, get thee to the U.A.E.
Dubai is busting out with people. More than 80% of its population are expats, though it's beyond us why somebody would want to settle there. Besides the perfect winters, the death-defying dune buggying, the great restaurants, the taxless paycheck and the scuba diving, that is.
Oh, and the golf isn't bad now, either. From above, the Emirates Golf Club looks like somebody dropped a Kelly green handkerchief on a vast waterless beach. One million gallons of desalinated water per day are poured on the course. The water is a by-product of the nearby aluminum plant, which, along with most everything else in this total monarchy, is also owned by the royal family.
"This land has zero nutrients," Barry Carter, the course superintendent from Florida, says with a sigh. To keep the 18-hole layout alive, he has given every one of the 50,000 plants its own dripper. Before the course was built, the land held one tree. Half the reason nationals go to the course is to find out what grass feels like under their feet. "If you leave the gates open at night, this place will be full of camels in the morning," says Carter. "To them, this is a grocery store."
There are still some hiccups in golf in the U.A.E. On nearly every hole at the tournament there was a huge sign touting the event's sponsor: DUBAL. THE UNIQUE ALUMINUM SMELTER. But there was only one scoreboard on the course. The range balls at the Emirates Golf Club come in plastic beach pails with little plastic handles. And every now and then during the Classic somebody would look at a scoring placard and say, "You see, Achmed, this Els just shot a double birdie."
But whether Dubai knew it or not, it was treated to the finest golf anywhere on the planet last week. By the time the usual 80° weather arrived on Sunday, the sheikh's advisers looked as if they had used up a genie's wish. Couples and Montgomerie were tied for the lead, with Els and Norman one shot back and Price two behind—the equivalent of inviting all the winners to your post-Oscar party two months ahead of time. Not only that but Norman had led the first day with a 64 and Montgomerie the next with a sporty 63. In all of Arabia, there was only one little leader board, but it was a doozy.
For Monty, Sunday was a chance to prove that having been atop the European money list for the past two years was not the same as being the tallest dwarf in the circus. "I've never beaten a field this good," he said after the third round, and on Sunday he went out and let Couples get away from him.