As classics go, the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic lived up to, and exceeded, every expectation. Thomas Björn, a winter resident in the Emirate, played all 72 holes in the exalted company of World Number One, Tiger Woods, and emerged as a worthy champion with a record 22 under par total of 266.
Björn, 30, displayed a granite resolve to complement his huge talent by shooting rounds of 64-66-68-69 to capture is sixth European Tour title at the Emirates Golf Club. The Dane finished two strokes ahead of Woods and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who finished with a round of 69, while Swede Mathias Grönberg claimed fourth spot on 270.
It was only the fourth time that Woods had not triumphed in 27 tournaments in which he led going into the final round – a statistic which underlines the enormity of his achievement under the stress of spending all four days in the American’s often intimidating company.
Björn savoured the moment and said: “It doesn’t get much better than this. I am proud of what I did this week. To go out there and play with the guy for four days and beat him is probably any golfer’s dream.
“I think this just goes to show how strong the European Tour is becoming. Lee (Westwood) has beaten him head to head, Darren (Clarke) has beaten him head to head and now I’ve done it. It takes a lot of doing because he is very impressive and he does intimidate you a little bit when you’re out there.”
It was a different scenario from last year’s US Open at Pebble Beach when Björn and Woods played in the final group on Saturday and Woods shot a 71 to outscore his rival by 11 strokes. However that proved to be a pivotal moment for Björn, who demonstrated
emphatically that he had used the experience as a learning curve.
The 2001 edition of the Dubai Desert Classic will live long in the memory for the quality of the competition, the presence of the World Number One, and the fact that Björn became another European to defeat Woods in direct competition, following the wins of Clarke in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and Westwood in last season’s Deutsche Bank-SAP Open TPC of Europe.
From the start Woods and Björn were locked together, shooting 64 on the opening day to lead the field. Woods repeated the feat in the second round to lead by two strokes from Björn with a tournament record total of 128, 16 under par.
However Björn, who had commented on the necessity to remain totally focused while playing in the same group as Woods, did precisely that on Saturday. The sheer brilliance of their golf ensured that they were paired once more in the third round and it was the Dane who edged that particular 18 hole contest with a 67 to Woods’s 68 but still the American led by one with a 20 under par total of 196.
Harrington, with a 64 on Saturday, moved into contention on 199. Ian Woosnam also entered the picture, having dusted down his clubs after the winter break, and matching Harrington’s 64 for a total of 201. So the stage was set for a duel in the desert sun which enthralled the sell-out crowd.
Woods found himself level after the first hole, which he bogeyed. Björn could not get the putter working and it was Harrington who briefly flirted with the lead after birdieing the ninth to reach the turn in 32.
It was short-lived, however, as Woods also picked up a stroke at the ninth to reclaim the lead. Nothing seemed to be happening for Björn until he arrived on the tenth green and stroked in his putt for an eagle three. Having been just off the pace, the Dane was back in business.
Harrington, with bogeys at the 12th and 15th, dropped back as did Woosnam, who bogeyed the 15th and 16th. That left the centre stage to the two golfers who have vied for the lead and the public affections all week.
Björn drew level at the 17th after Woods had missed his birdie attempt, and then decided to apply some subtle psychological pressure of his own on the 18th tee. He explained: “When I birdie the 17th I knew if I could hit a good drive on the 18th I could put pressure on him.
“It takes a lot to do that, but I knew if I could go on a tight line and hit it well it was going to put pressure on him because it is not the easiest driving hole. I think it is down to my credit really that I put the pressure on at exactly the right time.”
Woods managed to find trees on the right of the fairway, chipped out and hit his third into the water. After a penalty shot, a chip and two putts the World Number One had racked up a double bogey seven and the tournament was over. Björn made a safe par five while Woods’s misfortunate was Harrington good luck as he shared second place.
Woods said: “Hats off to Thomas. He played well all week and he deserves the title. I had an opportunity but I just made a couple of mistakes which cost me. Thomas played really solid all day but I wasn’t comfortable with my golf swing ad my putting stroke.”
Victory moves Björn to third place on the Volvo Order of Merit with 357,598 euro (£224,766) with Harrington in fifth. In the Ryder Cup points list, the roles are reversed with Harrington climbing to third with 870,350 points and Björn right behind him with 718,451.
Those top performances by European golfers confirmed to Björn that the “Big Three” of Westwood, Clarke and Colin Montgomerie, should now be a class of six. He said: “I think there are six of us. I said before the tournament that Harrington, Michael Campbell and I have closed the gap on Monty, Lee and Darren. There are six players on the European Tour now who are really strong.”Final results and prize money
Final round video highlights