DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer — the two highest-ranked golfers — insist Tiger Woods remains the biggest draw and his return to top form can only be good for the game.
"When I'm not playing a tournament and I'm watching, say, somewhere in the States, I'm watching how Tiger is playing," the top-ranked Westwood said. "I'm seeing if he's playing well. He's exciting to watch for everybody."
Westwood, Kaymer and the third-ranked Woods play this week at the Dubai Desert Classic. The three will be grouped for the first two rounds at Emirates Golf Course. This is the first time since 1994 the world's top three golfers are playing together in a European Tour event.
Woods' five-tournament winning streak at Torrey Pines ended last month after a final-round 75 left him tied for 44th. It was his worst start to a season since he turned pro and follows a year in which he failed to win at least one tournament for the first time and his marriage ended following extramarital affairs.
His struggles have raised doubts about whether at age 35 he will ever ascend to the level that brought him 14 majors, especially considering the rise of such players as the 26-year-old Kaymer.
Kaymer says such talk is premature.
"He's the best player in the game," Kaymer said. "At the moment, Lee and me, we are No. 1 and 2. But in every golfer's mind, he is the best player in the world. And it would be fantastic if he can get back to where he was and then we challenge him."
The German said he would relish the chance to play alongside Woods for the first time. Kaymer said the media shouldn't give Woods "such a hard time," adding that he has a lot of respect for him and "we are very thankful for what he did for golf."
"We are not enemies on the golf course. We don't like to see people suffering," Kaymer said. "Of course, you want to win on Sunday, but we don't like to win a golf tournament when somebody screws up.
"The way I won in Abu Dhabi, winning by eight shots, that's a great win and that makes me happy. But it would not make me happy if Tiger finishes with a double bogey and an 89 and I win by one (stroke)."
Mark O'Meara, a friend of Woods and also playing in Dubai, predicts Woods will win several tournaments this year and possibly a major.
"I'd never underestimate what Tiger is capable of doing," he said. "He may not be swinging the best. He may not be the most confident player right now. But saying all that, Tiger being Tiger, he has fought back before and he will fight back from this."
On Tuesday, Woods and O'Meara won the nine-hole, par-3 Challenge Match by two shots, beating Westood and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Noh Seung-yul and Jeev Milkha Singh were a further shot back.
Woods is not the only one having a rough start to the season. Westwood finished 64th in a European Tour event in Abu Dhabi last month then missed the cut in last week's Qatar Masters.
Westwood, who supplanted Woods at No. 1 in October, attributes his troubles to a lingering calf injury and time off over Christmas.
"When you don't work on your swing, you go back to your faults, and that's what's happened the last couple of weeks on tour in Abu Dhabi and Qatar," said Westwood, who on Thursday was given lifetime membership on the European Tour. "I needed to do a little bit of work on that, and I'm starting to get a bit of it in place."
Westwood could lose the top spot this week if Kaymer wins and he finishes lower than second, and if Kaymer finishes second and Westwood is out of the top 10. If Kaymer is tied for second, he could still become No. 1 if Westwood finishes out of the top 36. Woods could leapfrog Kaymer if he wins and Kaymer finishes outside the top five.
Kaymer and Westwood say they're priority is winning the tournament.
"Let's ignore the world ranking. The clear and present danger is not Martin Kaymer," Westwood said. "The issue for me is to play well, get my game in better order than it has been the last two weeks and try and win the Dubai Desert Classic. End of story."