No wonder fans were loudly humming the theme from the movie "Rocky" on Sunday at the conclusion of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Against all odds, journeyman Robert Rock played Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa to Tiger Woods’ Apollo Creed, winning by a majority decision in the 15th round.
Rock closed with 2-under-par 70 to Woods’ even-par 72 to earn the victory and the first-place check of nearly $460,000.
Woods finished a joint third, while Rory McIlroy sneaked in to finish second.
You couldn’t have asked for more of a mismatch in the desert if you tried. Woods holds 14 major championships, and has won another 83 tournaments around the world. He has 71 PGA Tour victories alone. And 38 victories in Europe. He has won $1 billion in earnings.
Woods was a child prodigy. Rock was a child nobody. Ten years ago, he was giving lessons to 18-handicappers at Swingers Driving Range in Litchfield, England. Before Abu Dhabi, he had only one European Tour win, last year’s Italian Open. He has played in only six majors: five British Opens and last year’s US Open.
Before the final round, it wasn’t a question of whether Woods would win, but how much of a beating he would lay on the Englishman. Instead, it was Woods who came off the 18th green as if he had been pummeled.
Woods claimed he was starting to feel comfortable with the swing changes he was making under the tutelage of swing instructor Sean Foley. For three days, it seemed that way, but not under the pressure of the final round.
Woods didn’t quite throw in the towel, but he certainly collapsed to the canvas for a few mandatory eight counts. The former world No. 1 hit only five greens all day, and only two fairways.
Woods missed five consecutive greens on the front nine, from Nos. 4 through 8, the latter from 108 yards.
He made consecutive bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5 to drop two shots adrift of Rock after they began the final round tied for the lead. A perfect drive at the fifth was followed by a fat second shot that ended in the right rough short of the green.
“I didn’t hit the ball as well as I would like to,” Woods said. “Today, I was just a touch off. I was flighting the ball through the fairways. I was hitting the ball a little bit further than I thought I would. A couple of my 3-woods were going about 320, which I don’t normally do.
“A couple of my irons were going further than they are supposed to. So something to look at, and something to try and figure out. I have to figure out why the ball is going further than it should.”
Rock said he would be trembling standing on the first tee at the thought of playing alongside Woods. He hadn’t slept much, conceding a nervousness at the prospect. Yet Rock split the fairway with his drive, found the green and was off and running. The Englishman played steady golf all day, hitting fairways and greens and holing putts, looking more Tiger-like than Woods.
“It’s pretty hard to believe that I managed to win,” he said. “It’s difficult playing with Tiger because you expect every shot to go in. But I managed to hit a couple of good shots on the first, and that settled me down.”
Even when he might have gotten flustered, Rock stayed patient. A poor drive on 18 called for a penalty drop, but, with a two-shot lead, Rock held his nerve to make bogey to win.
“Robert played great today,” Woods said. “He was solid, consistent; he didn’t do anything wrong. He was in-play, made a couple of key up-and-downs here and there, but overall just kept the ball right in front of him.”
In other words, a bit like Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed in Stallone’s Oscar-winning 1976 movie.
As one European Tour caddie said, there might not be a bigger upset than Rock’s win this year.
No wonder the fans were chanting “Rocky, Rocky” at the end.