DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) " 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.
They could be forgiven for wanting to put some space between themselves and Woods this week at the Dubai Desert Classic. Instead, they want the third-ranked Woods and winner of 14 majors to be competitive on the Emirates Golf Course.
"When I'm not playing a tournament and I'm watching, say, somewhere in the states, I'm watching how Tiger is playing," the No. 1-ranked Westwood said. "I'm seeing if he's playing well. He's exciting to watch for everybody."
Woods' five-tournament winning streak at Torrey Pines ended last month after a final-round 75 left him tied for 44th. That was his worst start to the season since turning pro.
It follows a year in which he failed to win at least one tournament for the first time in his career and his marriage ended after revelations of extramarital affairs.
His struggles on and off the course have raised doubts about whether the 35-year-old Woods will regain his dominance, especially considering the rise of younger players such as Kaymer.
But the 26-year-old Kaymer insisted such talk was 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. The draw has not been announced, but organizers are considering playing Woods, Westwood and Kaymer together for the opening two rounds.
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 who also will play in Dubai, predicted Woods will pick up several wins this year and possibly a major.
"Even last year, he hadn't really played much and was not in his best form. But he played well at Augusta, so I don't see it as unrealistic for him to win two to three tournaments and win a major," he said.
"I'd never underestimate what Tiger is capable of doing. 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."
While much of the attention will be on Woods, he is not alone in having a dreadful start to the season. Westwood finished 64th in a European Tour event in Abu Dhabi last month and missed the cut last week at the Qatar Masters.
Westwood, who replaced Woods at the top in October, attributed his troubles to a lingering calf injury and time off during the holidays. He said he'd been on the practice range after missing the cut and felt he had gotten the kinks out of his swing.
"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," he said. "I needed to do a little bit of work on that, and I'm starting to get a bit of it in place. My game feels like it's almost ready to go this week."
Westwood could lose the top spot this week if Kaymer wins and he finishes lower than second, or 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.
Neither Kaymer nor Westwood said they were thinking about the rankings, insisting their priority was 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."Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Barrington Broadcasting is a member of the AP Network.