Golf went to the United Arab Emirates last week to ask the burning question, "If this is the Desert Classic, then where's Bob Hope?" Well, this was the Dubai Desert Classic, the place the World Tour goes until somebody actually invents it.
The best players in the world—six of the Sony Rankings' top eight—showed up in the globe's largest sand bunker for nothing more than a little sun, a little fun and, oh, yes, more appearance money than you can shake a sheikh at. For the record, Fred Couples won the thing, with a 20-under score of 65-69-68-66-268, but everybody from here to Abu Dhabi knew who had won before it even started: swing sultans Nick Price, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie and Couples. They received more for showing up ($1.3 million altogether, according to an American expatriate member of the Emirates Golf Club) than for playing (the entire purse was $675,000). Of course, because the European tour discourages players from seeking appearance money and Dubai was the tour's first stop in '95, the event organizers say they merely helped Norman out with his jet fuel—for his next 50 trips.
"Three hundred thousand U.S. dollars," the American expat said of Norman's fuel allowance. That's a lot of dirham to pay a guy the billionaire prime minister of Dubai—His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum—hadn't even heard of until last year.
"We will call it The Great White Shark Comes to the Desert," the sheikh's chief economic adviser, Mohamed Alabbar, told him before last year's event, when the Desert Classic first lured Norman. This puzzled His Highness, who at the time did not know a Bertha from a Bedouin.
"How is this possible?" the sheikh asked. "You cannot bring a shark to such a place as this. It is not natural."
"I am afraid it did. not translate well into Arabic," says Alabbar. Still, the sheikh coughed up the royal checkbook and hasn't asked for it back since.
Not that the Shark and his friends didn't have to work for their money this year. They had to play in the Wednesday pro-am, let the azure waters of the Persian Gulf lick at their toes on the hotel beach, take their significant others to buy Persian rugs (Couples and his girlfriend, Tawnya Dodd, bought 10), swarm the world's greatest duty-free zone (though nobody bought a Mercedes) and hit the Friday-night cruise on the sheikh's private dhow, complete with a belly dancer, three bands and a few hundred grilled lobsters. You sure you wouldn't rather be at the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson?
Couples wouldn't say how much he got (in addition to his $112,500 winner's cut), but he did say, "I'm not gonna lie to you. It's a pile of money." The first time Couples made the very difficult decision to let the sheikh fill up his rec room with cash—last year—a friend asked him where the U.A.E. was. "I have no idea," he said. "I just know the ticket says, 'Go to London. Go to Dubai.' " He and Dodd asked her son, Derek, then 12, to get a Rand McNally and show them. Once they got there, the Couples couple liked the rugs, the silks and the food so much that they hung around two days after Couples missed the cut. "I had fun missing a cut," he says. "I never have fun missing a cut."
Somebody take a memo. We may have found the slow leak in the PGA's western swing. Too much rain. Too many all-week pro-ams (two). Too many stops with more than one course to play (four). Do you realize it snowed this week in Tucson? Hello, Dubai.
"The weather in America at this time of year is always sort of iffy," says Price, who, speaking of total monarchy, opened his third year on top of the game with a third-place tie. "You're always having to wear a sweater and fight the weather."