Damien's date with destiny

From Brian Keogh in Dubai

Tiger Woods is getting almost twice as much in appearance money this week - a cool €2.4 million - than Damien McGrane has earned in his entire career.

But that won’t bother the 36-year-old Meath man in the slightest when he goes head to head with the world No 1 in the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic.

As Woods birdied the 18th for a one under par 71 to lead on eight under par after surviving a vicious sand storm whipping in off the north west, McGrane compiled a brilliant 69 for the second day running to lie just a stroke behind the game’s greatest player on seven under.

After a career that has featured five trips to the European Tour qualifying school and nothing better than a brace of third place finishes, 36 year old McGrane is the living embodiment of the journeyman professional.

It will be second time in a row that Woods has played with an unfamiliar opponent in the third round after being paired with world 1324 Kevin Streelman en route to an eight shot victory in last week's Buick Invitational.

Ranked 319th in the world, McGrane has never met Woods, remarking: “I’ve walked past him on the practice ground." Asked if he had anything in common with Woods, he added: "We ate in the same steakhouse a couple of nights ago.”

It's a mutual thing.

To no one's surpirse, Woods had never heard of McGrane until he saw his name on the leaderboard yesterday.

“I know he’s Irish but that’s about it," Woods said.

McGrane equalled the second best score of the day to set up a dream pairing that comes a close second to his ultimate dream, which is to win a European Tour event.

“I think everyone here would love to play with Tiger,” McGrane said, after an impressive round that featured an eagle, three birdies and just two bogeys. “I'm sure it's something that is going to be very different, it will be a different experience, again.

“It's an experience I haven't had before playing with a player of his stature. I suppose there's nobody bigger in the game, is there. So it has to be a new experience for me.

“But he has his game and I have my game, and I try to do the best with what I have. This what it's about, isn't it? This is why we practice so hard and why we work continuously to improve what we do.”

Asked if he thought he’d be nervous, McGrane added: “I hope not. Golf is a difficult game for me and obviously I have to make the most of what I do. I play my own game and no matter who I am playing with, whether it’s yourself or Tiger, I have to try and do the same thing, play my own game and hopefully the numbers will add up correctly at the end of the day.”

His 69 was typical McGrane.

“It was a tough day, a grinder’s day and I would consider myself something of a grinder,” said the former club professional at Wexford Golf Club. “I’ve been steady. I’ve haven’t been making too many bogeys. You have to chip and putt when you need it and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Starting on the back nine, he chipped and putted for birdies at the par-five 10th and 13th holes to get to six under par, bogeyed the 15th and the first after missing greens right and then played the remaining holes in three under par.

The highlight came at the 568 yard third, where he hit the pin with a three-wood approach from 283 yards and knocked in the resulting four -footer for an eagle three.

“I almost surprised myself,” he said of his eagle. “That was certainly the highlight.”

The weather caused havoc for the players, with the average score soaring from 71.39 to 73.62 as temperatures dropped and the wind whipped sand into their eyes.

“My eyes are quite dry now, so it certainly was a bizarre experience for me,” McGrane said. “Normally it’s tears that are coming out of my eyes with wind and rain and frost.

“Today, finishing on the last few holes, it was very cold and you don’t expect that in the desert. But you know, it was nearly my type of weather today, so I made the most of it.”

It’s been a long road for McGrane from the professional’s shop in Wexford to playing with Woods in the last group of a major European Tour event.

But the former Irish Boys champion believes that he has come a long way since he first clinched his tour card in 2003.

“You know, golf is a tough game and it’s been a long road for me,” he said. “Obviously I still think I am on the correct road moving forward and it’s nice to see my name at the top of the leaderboard.

“But that’s what it’s about, isn’t it. That’s why we practice so hard and why we work continuously to improve what we do. And when we hole a few putts we can be there or thereabouts.

“Wexford for me was a long time ago and it stood me well at the time and I’ve moved on a long ways since then.”

Yet while he’s looking forward to teeing it up with Woods today, McGrane still says his ultimate dream is to win a golf tournament.

“I wouldn’t say it’s my lifelong dream,” he said of his pairing with Woods. “Obviously we all want to play better than Tiger. That’s our ambition, to play alongside him, see how the game is play, see what we should be doing because he sets the mark at the moment.

“What is my dream? I’d like to start by winning a golf tournament. And the obviously I need to get a new dream after that. But my first ambition is to win a golf tournament on the European Tour.”

While McGrane has played with Colin Montgomerie and Ernie Els in European Tour events, he will never have experienced the circus that surrounds Woods wherever he plays.

Asked how difficult McGrane might find the experience, Woods said: “We’ve got to go out there and play. I've got to worry about me - I have my own responsibilities out there and trying to place the ball where I need to place it, and you know, whatever I've got to do I've got to do and I'm sure he feels the same way.

“If I had to advise anyone on playing with me for the first time I’d say there's a lot of distractions here. I know there's a policy with no cameras but that's not really happening out here. That just the way it is. You know, people out here are going to have cameras, they are going to get you in your swing, and unfortunately that's just the way it goes.

“People mean well, they are trying to capture a moment, but sometimes it happens to be at the wrong moment. But I feel fine – I was pleased with anything in the red today. It was not a pretty day out there, so I’m pleased.”