Masses continue to flock to Tiger

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Some might think it funny, but it is not a joke to suggest that camel racing is a more popular sport in the U.A.E. than golf. Perhaps others would argue the point, but the fact that it is even up for debate suggests where golf falls in a country littered with sand traps.

Soccer and cricket, of course, produce the most passion. Grand Prix auto racing is also popular. Golf gets a big boost when, well … Tiger Woods appears.

Who knows whether the organizers get their money's worth for paying Woods -- who shot 69 on Friday and is just two strokes off the lead -- to come to the Middle East, but certainly you could see his impact at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

The weekend starts a day earlier here than in the United States and the traffic was congested getting to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Fans surrounded the putting green as Woods put in extra work on a stroke that betrayed him during the opening round. They followed him to the first tee, where spectators lined the ropes several deep heading all the way to the green, a noon tee time approaching.

And they showed their lack of golf spectator etiquette by ignoring rules that do not allow cameras and brazenly snapped photos.

By the time Woods and fellow competitors Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald got to the fifth hole, Amay Khantelwal was already growing tired, the sun taking its toll. Even though he had a great seat -- atop his father Tarun's shoulders -- the interest level was waning.

Being 4 years old might have had something to do with it, but Tarun's mother and father were undeterred. They were here to see Tiger.

"He doesn't know it yet, but he's a Tiger fan," said the older Khantelwal, who moved to Abu Dhabi from India eight years ago and runs a financial advisory business.

Khantelwal's story is quite common. The U.A.E. is filled with expatriates who arrived to take advantage of the country's thriving and modern economy.

Although the official language here is Arabic, nearly everyone speaks English. Road signs, menus and newspapers are in both Arabic and English.

It certainly wasn't difficult to find people who hailed from other countries. While walking the golf course Friday and following Woods, it was easy to spot the Americans who wore college garb from schools including Virginia Tech, Tennessee or Notre Dame. There were Pebble Beach hats, and those from the San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees.

Various accents could be heard throughout the gallery, so I started asking people where they were from. Within an hour, I had spoken to folks from Ireland, England, Germany, Holland, India, Pakistan, Japan and the United States.

Two guys following Tiger were from Houston. They were sent here on an assignment by their engineering firm to work for several years building a new refinery. They work six-day weeks and play the occasional round of golf, but were drawn to the course by Tiger.

"I'm curious to see how he looks, if he'll come back," Gerry White said.

Woods did his part, making five birdies against two bogeys in his 69 on Friday. It is clear he is getting past the health issues that dogged him last year, and his swing bears that out.

Gone is the violent move that was so prevalent last year, one that he said was necessitated by a lack of strength. It's not Ernie Els swinging the club, but Woods is swinging easier and seeing the ball go farther.

"I'm getting the club head in the right position," Woods said. "It's amazing when I'm able to do that, the speed I'm able to produce. Overall I'm much stronger. So with that combination, I should be hitting the ball further."

That kind of inside-golf talk was not of much concern to those following the nearly five-hour round. Gagesh KK, also from India, had never seen Woods in person, only on television. An employee of Emirates Airlines, he drove here from Dubai -- even though in two weeks, the European Tour ventures there -- because Woods is in Abu Dhabi and not Dubai, where he has played six times, including last year.

"I came here to see Tiger," he said. "I'm not much of a golf fan, but I wanted to watch him, wanted to see him. I came just for this."

Golf is ever-so slowly gaining in popularity here, although it becomes a pursuit mostly for tourists or seasonal residents. The Abu Dhabi Golf Club allows public play, typically at the rate of 500 dirhams, which is about $150. A relatively new course in Abu Dhabi called the Yas Links commands 750 dirhams.

These places are frequented by all nationalities, another interesting part of the U.A.E, which boasts more than 85 percent expatriates. "It is one of the most multicultural places in the world," Khantelwal said.

The Emeratis were evident because many wore a kandura, a long white cloak, even though such clothing is not a requirement for such an occasion. Still, U.A.E. nationals could be spotted throughout the course Friday wearing such clothing.

Ahmed Al Musharek was not. He was in traditional golf attire. That's because he was playing in the tournament.

Al Musharek is an amateur golfer from the U.A.E. who was given a sponsor's invite to participate in the tournament. He was the only player in the field from the home country. And he shot 82-80 to miss the cut.

He won't get to play the remaining two rounds, but there is a pretty good bet to be made (although that's actually illegal here) on what he will be doing: watching Woods.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.