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Woods vs Els showdown at Dubai this week

Twelve months ago, Tiger Woods decided to withdraw from the Dubai Desert Classic because of international tensions in the Middle East, putting on hold a mouth-watering showdown between the game's top two players.

At the time, though, the American world number one promised organisers he would be back.

True to his word, Woods has returned to Dubai for this week's European Tour stop where he will be teeing off in Thursday's opening round at the Emirates Golf Club, along with twice winner Ernie Els and world number 11 Padraig Harrington.

"I was really disappointed not to have made it over to Dubai last year, so I'm more than excited about returning," the 28-year-old Woods was quoted as saying by the tournament's organisers.

"The organisers were cooperative and supportive and I appreciated their understanding of my decision not to play back in March (2003).

"Because I wanted to thank everyone in Dubai for their understanding, I immediately agreed to play in the 15th Dubai Desert Classic."

With his eagerly anticipated Dubai showdown with Els back on track, Woods arrives in the United Arab Emirates fresh from a 3 and 2 victory over Davis Love III in Sunday's 36-hole final of the WGC-World Match Play Championship.

The title was his first of the year but his 40th on the PGA Tour in 149 career starts and earned him a tour record winner's cheque for $1.2 million.

Although Els is no longer the game's second-ranked player, having been edged down to three by Fiji's Vijay Singh, the big South African has won twice in just four starts this season, triumphing at the Hawaii Open in January and at last month's Heineken Classic in Melbourne.

His head-to-head with Woods this week, their second meeting this year following the PGA Tour's season-opening Mercedes Championships in Hawaii, will undoubtedly draw big crowds to the Majlis course he so dearly enjoys.

"I think everyone knows I love playing in Dubai," said 34-year-old Els, champion in 1994 and 2002. "I like the lines off the tees and the greens are quite soft so, if you get your ball up, you can shoot some good scores."

Prize money this week will reach $2 million for the first time in the tournament's history, with the winner to receive a cheque for $333,330.

The strong field also includes twice major winner Mark O'Meara, world number 13 Darren Clarke, former European number one Lee Westwood, Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin, New Zealand's Michael Campbell, Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee and Britons Paul Casey and Ian Poulter.

Denmark's Ryder Cup player Thomas Bjorn, who has spent most of the European winter in Dubai in recent years and won the 2001 event by holding off Woods, is also taking part.

Defending champion is Dutchman Robert-Jan Derksen, who upstaged Els last year by reeling off five birdies and an eagle-three in a closing round of seven-under-par 65 to win his first European Tour title by a shot.

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