Tuesday, 05 March 2002
If ever there is a perfect fillip for an injured golfer it is a return to a tournament as defending champion and never more than this week for Thomas Björn in the Dubai Desert Classic.

The 31 year old Dane has not played on The European Tour International Schedule this year thanks to the recurrence of a shoulder injury but will be heartened by his first appearance of the season at a venue where, 12 months ago, he produced one of the performances of his career.

Last March, Björn was paired with Tiger Woods in all four rounds as the pair went virtually head to head for the title, the Dane coming out on top by two shots over the World Number One who had to settle for a share of second place with Padraig Harrington.

Harrington returns to the Emirates Golf Club too as do five other members of Europe's Ryder Cup team bound for The De Vere Belfry in September, namely Darren Clarke, Niclas Fasth, Pierre Fulke, Colin Montgomerie and Phillip Price.

Fasth produced one of the best European performances in the World Golf Championships - Accenture Match Play at La Costa Resort and Spa recently, reaching the last 16, and will be keen to now reproduce the stroke play form which saw him finish tenth on the 2001 Volvo Order of Merit.

Aside from Björn and Montgomerie, past winners of the Dubai Desert Classic hoping this week to become the first player to win the event twice are Seve Ballesteros, Eamonn Darcy, Ernie Els, Mark James, David Howell and Richard Green.

Els's victory in 1994 included what is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever rounds in the history of The European Tour and he returns to the Emirates fresh from his superb victory in The Genuity Championship in Florida on Sunday.

His opening 11 under par 61, eight years ago, included 12 birdies in all, which equalled the record for the most birdies in one round in an official European Tour event. It gave the South African a sizeable cushion over the rest of the field and laid the foundations for his comfortable six shot victory.

Ballesteros, Green and James all triumphed in play-offs while Howell is the only one of the former champions not to have won at the Emirates Golf Club, the Swindon man's success in 1999 coming at the nearby Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.

As with last year, the high quality field will battle it out for a share of a £1 million prize fund, but the players will notice substantial changes to the course designed originally by Karl Litten. All 18 greens have been relaid and new tees at the first and 16th hole have increased the overall length by 58 yards.

"The Majlis course is in absolutely fantastic condition," said The European Tour's Senior Tournament Director Mike Stewart. "The new 16th tee will challenge the best players on Tour, while the greens are back to their original size and specification."

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