Sport Golf

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Tiger's billion-dollar dustbowl

Woods' unfinished Dubai course symbolic of tarnished legacy, writes Lawrence Donegan

The decline of 'brand Tiger Woods' is a story best told not by the supermarket tabloids, golf's world rankings or this month's 'relaunch' of a career and an image so brutally damaged by personal scandal, but by a journey, along the Emirates Road to the south of Dubai and then left and down an unmarked road.

Drive for a mile over the speed bumps, past an abandoned security hut, until tarmac becomes gravel and then another mile until the gravel becomes sand, and there it is: The Tiger Woods Dubai. The first golf course in the world designed by the man many consider, or at least considered, the greatest ever to play the game.

Read the three-year-old press releases and gasp at the numbers. Fifty-five million square feet. Two hundred 'residences' -- £7m villas, £10m mansions and 'palaces'. A boutique hotel, a spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant. And then the centrepiece, the Al Ruwaya Golf Club. An 18-hole masterpiece hewn from the sand. All hail the winner of "best golf development" at the 2008 Arabian Properties Awards. Estimated total cost on completion: $1.1bn.

Now gasp at the tumbleweed reality on the morning of November 27, 2010, the first anniversary of the car crash that led to the world's richest and most famous athlete falling to earth. The Tiger Woods Dubai: a dust-bowl, an empty car-park, an 'Arabian palace' as real as a Hollywood film set.

Like so much else in post-boom Dubai, the palace is a facade, propped up by wooden beams. Behind it lies a collection of portable cabins that in the glory days of the economic boom served as a sales office. These days, the salesmen have gone, only to be replaced by a handful of cleaners and maintenance staff trying to keep alive what is left of the $1.1bn fantasy.

There is not much. A scale model of the proposed development in one of the rooms, some dusty furniture and a telephone long disconnected. What has happened to Tiger Woods Dubai? "No comment. I don't know,'' said a Dubai-based spokesman for IMG, the sports agency that represents Woods around the world, while repeated attempts to contact the Dubai Properties Group, the government-controlled company that now owns the development, are met with no response.

In the week before his infamous car crash, Woods came to Dubai to look over the work that had been done up until then. He has never been back but when -- or if -- he ever does, he will find virtually nothing has changed.

Six holes have been completed and the outline of 12 more are in place, all behind a fenced-off compound hidden away from public view. Ghostly fairways lined by 3,000 trees, with 8,000 more stored under canvas. Will the project ever be finished? "Who knows? It could be great if it ever gets finished, but we don't know if it will ever get finished," says one member of the staff. "They better make a decision soon because we are struggling to keep the desert at bay."

The urgency is understandable. It takes 1,000,000 gallons of water a month to keep the vegetation alive -- an inconsequential financial indulgence in 2008 but an unsustainable loss in these straightened times. There are options. Either abandon Tiger Woods Dubai to nature, or turn it into an exclusive golf retreat for high-rollers brought in from the downtown palaces such as the £1,500-a-night Burj al Arab.

"Like Shadow Creek [an exclusive golf course in Las Vegas owned by the legendary casino developer Steve Winn] but without the gambling," says one source.

A decision is expected before February, when Woods will arrive here to play in the Dubai Desert Classic. The smart money around town is on the return to nature. After all, what use is a billionaires' playground when there are no billionaires?

"Why Dubai?" said Tiger Woods when asked why he had chosen to build his first golf course design in the Emirates, thousands of miles from his home in Florida and a world away from the Old Course at St Andrews, the links layout designed and built by nature he has always described as his golfing lodestar. "Dubai is basically in the biggest, greatest and newest of everything."

Maybe so, but we can assume that money played a hugely significant part in the decision, Neither Woods nor his people ever discuss the vulgar subject of money, but no one in the business of golf has ever confused this reticence with modesty.

In the era of the global sporting superstar, Woods was bigger than anyone. He worked hard to attain that status, was proud of it and was well aware of its worth. How much was he paid to put his name, and apply his expertise, to the Tiger Woods Dubai?

A figure as high as $25m was bandied around when Woods came here to launch the project in the autumn of 2008. But as time passed and Dubai's property-based economy collapsed the numbers have been rounded downwards.

"Realistically, I have heard the fee was $10m, and not all of that was up front,'' one leading sports agent said last week. "But the real big money was in the 'back end' of the deal -- the royalties he would have received from the sales. That could have run into tens of millions."

Such vast sums sound outrageous today but there was a time when Dubai gloried in the obscenity of wealth. It was willing to gamble millions to attract billions, and in that context the appropriation of the Tiger Woods brand seemed like a one-way bet. And for a short period of time it was, with the then project manager Abdulla Al Gurg claiming in the autumn of 2008 that 35 per cent of the development's properties -- some of them priced as high as £25m -- had been sold. Al Gurg has since left, but one member of staff who has been around since the start confirms the early successes.

"The place was buzzing. You would come in here every morning and find the sales staff had put up yet another red triangle (signifying a sale) on the map. There were always potential buyers around the place, being taken out for site visits,'' he says. The first signs of trouble came at the end of 2008, as economies around the world began to crash. Dubai's was more heavily leveraged than most and as it result it crashed harder. Property prices fell 30 per cent in a matter of months, while the market for high-end developments such as the Tiger Woods Dubai simply vanished.

In March 2009, it was quietly announced the scheduled opening date for the real estate side of the development had been pushed back. "We are prioritising the golfing components -- the course, the clubhouse and the academy," Al Gurg said. Three months later, The Guardian revealed the golf course itself was being delayed until 2010, prompting Woods into an embarrassing public loss of face.

"The delay is six months as of right now,'' he said. "Obviously, the economy has turned over there and they've slowed down construction because of it. The economy needs to turn around. If it gets stimulated, we can pick up to the point where we might open earlier, but who knows? It's out of my hands."

Woods was right about that, but he had been forewarned. No one is immune to the tides of man, not even him. If he did not learn the lesson back then, he must surely have learned it now, after a year in which his marriage has collapsed, his supremacy over his golfing rivals has crumbled and his business empire has suffered blow after blow.

Best estimates suggest the golfer has lost at least $35m-a-year in endorsements after being dropped by AT&T, Accenture and the drinks company Gatorade, while the absence of any new sponsorship deals suggests the taint of scandal still clings. Money is not everything, but it is surely something for a man with a billionaire's tastes and an empire to finance.

In his heyday, Woods succeeded in bending his sport and his world by sheer force of will and clearly he believes he can do so again. The 'brand' will go on, but it must also be re-invented -- with a much-trailed radio interview in the United States, a self-authored article in Newsweek and Twitter. "You guys are awesome. Thanks for all the love," he famously tweeted from his Blackberry.

The interview was ridiculed, the Newsweek piece dismissed and, 10 days and four tweets later, the experiment in personal interaction with the public seems stalled. Time to wheel out the man from IMG. "We live in a society of second chances,'' declared Woods' long-time agent Mark Steinberg in an interview this week. Maybe we do, but in the Arabian desert it could be that the billion-dollar dream of the Tiger Woods Dubai has had the only chance it will ever get.

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