Lousy turnout for Dubai’s opening round

Seung-yul Noh during Round 1 of the Dubai World Championship.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The sun may be shining, the best two golfers in Europe might be battling it out for the right to become king of Europe, but does anyone here in Dubai know it?

That’s the pertinent question after the opening round of the $7.5 million Dubai World Championship. That sort of money, along with another $7.5 million in bonus money, might help sponsor Jumeirah Estates purchase Europe’s elite, but it certainly doesn’t buy a gallery.

There’s hardly anyone here.

No official crowd figures are available for the first round. Just as well, because the number must have been in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

I counted 24 people watching Padraig Harrington and Rhys Davies play the ninth hole. Never mind the rising star that is Davies; we’re talking Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner.

An Irish colleague who followed Harrington for the front nine said that figure – 24 – was being generous. He said there were only a handful of people watching Davies and the Irishman for most of the front nine.

The Ian Poulter/Ernie Els pairing was one of the most attractive of the day. Els is also a three-time major winner, and one of the game’s bona fide superstars, while Poulter is arguably the most flamboyant player in golf today.

Seven marshals paraded the seventh fairway, and they were needed, apparently, to control the 30 fans walking outside the fairway ropes.

OK, so you’re thinking the galleries were saving themselves for the marquee pairing of Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell, right? Wrong.

I didn’t count this gallery, but I probably could have had I applied myself. My guess is it couldn’t have been more than 150 when they came up the ninth hole. And stragglers walking in from the watering hole between the fifth green and sixth tee with no more golf to watch inflated that number.

Can you imagine the first game of the World Series played in a stadium with only a thousand people, or fans turning up in the second quarter of the Super Bowl?

The Middle East may have the money to stage golf tournaments right now, but it’s not rich with golf fans. Had this event been staged in England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales (or even Germany or France), then you can guarantee the fairways would have been crowded. Even on a workday, as it was here in Dubai.

Fridays and Saturdays constitute the weekend here in the Middle East, so we can expect more fans for the next two rounds. But I’m guessing not many more.

The land outside the fairway ropes of the Earth Course here at Jumeirah Estates explains why the crowd was so sparse.

The course is situated in the middle of a huge construction site, with one exception: no construction is taking place.

Half-finished villas line most fairways. Ugly, concrete monstrosities with scaffolding, pipe work and steel supports exposed to the world dot the landscape. Players this week use a temporary clubhouse because the one that was half-finished last year is still half-finished.

The place is an eyesore. Very little, if any, construction has taken place since last year’s tournament. Even those villas that are finished are lying empty.

It belies the Dubai dream. This Middle East metropolis was supposed to be the desired destination for people all over the world. Those villas around the golf courses were supposed to provide the galleries for this tournament.

People were expected to flock here from all over the world. Instead, many who have are dying to get out of Dubai. Those unfortunate enough to have bought property are stuck in negative equity brought on by the worldwide credit crunch, which has hit Dubai hard. Some have just upped sticks and left, leaving everything.

The ex-patriot population has shrunk. And because ex-patriots are the only people who get out to watch golf tournaments in the Middle East . . . well, then that explains the low turnout.

So let’s hope the European season ends with a bang on the fairways, because there is only a whimper outside the ropes.

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