ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES l Robert Rock. Sounds like a character in The Flintstones. “Abu Dhabi Dooo,” as the 34-year-old English former driving range pro no doubt shouted from the rooftop of his hotel Sunday night. Or “Abu Dhabi don’t bloody believe it,” as Tiger Woods will be thinking.
It was all going so swimmingly for the former world No. 1 as he continues his comeback on the back nine of his career. The 54-hole lead was his to share. Only eight times throughout his career had he lost from such a commanding position. He was swinging well, hitting fairways with the driver, fizzing irons into greens and rediscovering his touch with the putter: 46 greens in regulation for the first three rounds. A two-shot lead over his biggest threat Rory McIlroy and out in the final group with Rock and Sweden’s Peter Hansen. Victory was his for the taking. And then Woods hit just two fairways and five greens.
Rock admitted to “cacking himself” at the thought of playing with his idol. It’s English slang. You’ll just have to work out what it means. Suffice to say that Woods’ opponents have mostly cacked themselves at the very sight of that red Sunday shirt. Not any more.
It’s one thing for Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald to suggest that Woods no longer holds the same fearsome aura that he once did. But Woods was beaten by a guy that started the week 117th in the world with just a victory in the 2011 Italian Open to show from 905 events.
Where the heck does Woods go from here?
Literally, it’s Pebble in two weeks. He’ll be hoping it proves rather less of an obstacle than a Rock. Woods has been honing his game for 18 months with his coach, Sean Foley, and there are signs that progress is being made. But physically Woods looked to be struggling with his knee two-thirds of the way through the last two rounds. Perhaps, if he’s taking painkillers, that’s when their effects are wearing off. Maybe that’s why his left hook returned to knock him out on Sunday.
But Woods, of course, says he’s fit and healthy for the first time in eight to 12 years, and playing better than when he won the Chevron World Challenge last December. But just what is the truth with Woods, who considers any information that shows him to be less than perfect to be a sign of weakness? He flatly refused to mark his game out of 10 or to say whether his performance had met his expectations coming to play in Abu Dhabi for the first time.
Which begs the question: What on earth would make him turn up to test his game (if it wasn’t 100 percent) against the world’s top four players (Donald, Lee Westwood, McIlroy and Martin Kaymer) on a course he had never seen before? He could have teed it up instead against a modest field at Torrey Pines, where he has won seven times in 13 tournaments including the 2008 U.S. Open.
Well, a reputed appearance fee of $1.5 million ought to influence his schedule. “You know, I’d have to say yes, it certainly does,” Woods said in an unexpected moment of honesty. So fair play to him for that. He smiled a lot this week, too, and signed autographs and made McIlroy his new BFF. They even played a practice nine together. When was the last time Woods did that with a rival? Never. That’s when. Perhaps he’s volunteering for the mentor role with the 22-year-old Northern Irishman. Or maybe he has identified his rival for the next five years and it’s a case of better the devil you know.
They certainly chatted enough in the three rounds they played in each other’s company to suggest they have struck up a genuine friendship. McIlroy’s victory at last year’s U.S Open seems to have won him respect and membership into Tiger’s inner circle. They swapped tips like any other golf geeks out on the links.
But woe betide McIlroy should he ever divulge anything other than trivia about their chats. Woods was still irked at former coach Hank Haney writing a book about their six years together. Nothing irritates Woods more than being out of control and betrayed by one of his inner circle. “Am I disappointed? Yes. Frustrated? Certainly.” Anger was plane to see on the course, still, too with F-bombs and turf-slams. Perhaps, it’s time to book into rehab again for an anger management refresher course.
This was the week when Woods will have wanted to stamp his authority again on a game he once dominated. He said his was fit and happy with his game. So, he can have no excuses. He lost to a player he had barely heard of. This was an embarrassing defeat for a man with designs on breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Woods must be physically exhausted. But, more importantly, he must feel mentally shattered. He got rolled over by a Rock.