The most shocking result in professional golf did not necessarily occur at Torrey Pines Sunday.
Even as golf fans watched with anguish and disbelief when Kyle Stanley took an eight on the Farmers Insurance Open final hole at Torrey to force a playoff loss to Brandt Snedeker, Tiger Woods upstaged them with his four compelling rounds a half world away.
Woods, in his first tournament of the season at the Abu Dhabi Championship, faded with an even-par 72 Sunday to finish tied for third. Woods had shared the third-round lead with Britain’s Robert Rock, who went on to victory.
Entering the tournament, Woods had won 48 of the 52 times he held or shared the lead after three rounds. His worldwide record was 52 of 60. To lose is a shock, especially considering he was beaten by the 117th ranked player in the world who had won just once in his nine years as a pro. Woods has 71 Tour victories.
Rock told the media afterward that “it’s difficult playing with Tiger. You expect almost every shot to threaten to go in. I felt a lot of pressure and couldn’t afford any lapses in concentration at all.
“Both Tiger and Peter (Hanson) struggled on occasions on a few holes and I managed to keep my ball in the right position and didn’t put myself under too much stress until the last, which was a relief.”
Woods started the round with birdies on two of the first three holes, including sinking a 40-foot putt on the second. But Rock, holding up under the pressure, also birdied two of the first three. Woods then unraveled and Rock stayed steady to hold off not only Woods but Rory McIlroy, who finished one shot behind.
“It doesn’t get an awful lot harder than playing with Tiger Woods,” Rock said. “So I guess barring a major championship, I know I can handle that again. So that’s pretty nice to know.”
Remember when Woods treated journeyman golfers like Rock with professional disdain. He would make them melt and disappear merely by intimidation. When he was in his prime, few could ever stand up to him. Now guys like Rock are emboldened.
So as the season progresses and Woods joins the PGA Tour in two weeks at Pebble Beach, the questions are: Has Woods’ career prime passed? Or will he recover what he once had after yet another swing change and his personal travails? Or has the field caught up to him to the point where he can no longer intimidate just by showing up?
Abu Dhabi offered some clues.
Woods was paired with McIlroy for the first three rounds of the tournament. McIlroy, 23, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, has been profiled as the best among the young guns seeking to displace Woods as the next Tour-midator. He’s skilled, confident and seemingly unflappable, irregardless of his bizarre final round collapse at the 2011 Masters.
The golf world was captivated as to how McIlroy and Woods, both given seven-figure appearance money for the event, would respond in a head-to-head matchup. Neither one would wilt.
McIlroy held a three-shot lead over Woods after the opening round. Woods bounced back and beat McIlroy by three in the second round, although McIlroy also got a two-stroke rules violation penalty for brushing sand away from his ball. Since they were tied after two rounds, they matched up again in the third, with Woods taking a two-stroke edge, 68 to 66.
McIlroy, playing in the group ahead of Woods Sunday, finished three shots better. So it was pretty much a push, more to the credit of McIlroy, 14 years younger and vastly less experienced. Even 19-year-old Matteo Manessaro of Italy finished with a stronger final round, three shots better than Woods.
As Woods tries to regain his footing on the Tour, there is no doubt that he has a tarnished name from his bad behavior and martial infidelities of two years ago. But it also appears that his name doesn’t hold the same aura it once had among his fellow competitors, especially the young dudes. Woods not only is challenged to re-groove his swing but restore his intimidation brand.