The Loop

Tiger's Sunday statement: I lost to who?

January 29, 2012

"The one and only Tiger Woods," the announcer said at the 18th green of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Sunday, as an imposter wearing a red shirt but otherwise bearing no resemblance to the one and only made his way onto the green.

The final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Champions provided a perfect platform from which to make a resounding statement, that the throne that Woods ceded when a fire hydrant came between him and has assault on history was only on loan.

Woods was beating an elite field that included Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, numbers 1 through 4 in the World Ranking, and he shared the lead with Robert Rock, a former club pro, who was "struggling to crack the 100 mark [in the World Ranking]," he said.

Winning once was a formality in such circumstances, his the most imposing shadow in the history of golf. He routinely feasted on the best players, winning 14 major championships and 16 World Golf Championship events.

But Sundays no longer are scripted and Rock was better at improvisation on this one. He shot a two-under par 70 that included clutch birdies at 14 and 16 while Woods made eight straight pars to close with a 72 and tied for third.

"I really can't believe I've done that today," Rock said, acknowledging the unlikelihood of his having done so. "I was just very happy to be playing with Tiger Woods today. That was a special honor in itself. I've worked hard on my game, but never thought this would happen."

He was not alone. Woods' bogey-free third round of 66 appeared effortless and a portent of a Sunday that would suggest the imminent second coming of the man his father once called "the chosen one." As a friend noted in an email, "the rest of those guys look like a school of baitfish swimming around an old and very hungry shark. Or, to use another animal analogy, a herd of deer and a few wild boar strolling in front of a salivating Tiger."

Instead, the statement with which we were left is that Woods isn't the player he once was, not at this point. A player for whom it has always been about the W uncharacteristically found consolation in the wake of an L. "I'm pleased with the progress I've made so far," he said. "I just need to keep building and getting more consistency."

Woods hit 10 of 14 fairways in two of four rounds, but was erratic off the tee in the other two rounds. He played two bogey-free rounds, but carded three on Sunday, including consecutive bogeys early in the round that put him in chase mode the rest of the day.

Is it conceivable that a man who has won 83 tournaments (71 on the PGA Tour, 12 internationally) has to rediscover how to win, notwithstanding a meaningless victory against a small field in the Chevron World Challenge in December?

Woods was the 36-hole leader of the Australian Open in November and finished third there, too. His last meaningful victory came in the Tour Championship in 2009.

"I was right there with a chance to win and didn't do it," he said on Sunday. "I was just a touch off."

None of it particularly matters, of course. At 36, his focus is entirely on major championships and winning the five he'll need to overtake Jack Nicklaus. His work now is geared toward preparing him for Augusta National the Masters.

"That's a long way away and obviously I'm building towards that. This is a step in the right direction," he said. His performance on Sunday suggested otherwise, that the one and only is still missing.

-- John Strege