Don’t get too worked up over Abu Dhabi
Much has already been made of Tiger Woods’ failure to win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on Sunday.
Far too much.
Woods isn’t some up-and-coming tyro looking to make his bones in golf, nor is he a journeyman wanting to define a career, like Sunday’s winner, Robert Rock, who doubled his career win total by holding his nerve in the Arabian Desert.
Woods is 36 and has already won 83 times around the world.
Although he rotely says he enters every tournament to get a W, be sure that not all Ws are equal.
He’d gladly win only five more tournaments in his life . . . as long as they’re the right five: the five majors that would see him eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, the only mark in golf that matters to Woods.
Even before a fire hydrant sent his career skidding in November 2009, Woods had grown nonchalant about run-of-the-mill tournaments.
Of course, he’d prefer to win them, too, but their true worth to him has long been in readying him for the real thing: the majors.
Abu Dhabi, then, represented two things to Woods, and only two: appearance money — around $2 million to help keep the fridge stocked at Tiger Inc. — and a place to start the season and further chart what he’s taken to calling his “progress.”
Put another way, there’s no way Woods would’ve signed off on his post-round interview with the Golf Channel’s Steve Sands after losing to Rock with, “Thanks, dude,” if winning that tournament really mattered.
“There’s plenty of big events to go,” Woods said with a shrug.
“I’m pleased at the progress I’ve made so far.”
When asked about the Masters — where Woods’ focus has been for months — he replied: “That’s a long way away and obviously I’m building towards that.
“This is a step in the right direction.”
And there’s truth in that assessment.
He came back after seven weeks off and turned in two good rounds with two so-so rounds and still finished ahead of some of golf’s biggest names, including world No. 1 Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who’d won three of the past four years in Abu Dhabi.
In his last three tournaments, Woods has finished third at the Australian Open in November, won the Chevron World Challenge in December — albeit against only 17 other players — and now has another third place.
Throw in a very solid performance in the winning US Presidents Cup campaign in November, and it’s been an impressive bounce back for Woods after the injury-plagued struggles of mid-2011 and the post-scandal catastrophes of 2010.
But none of that’s to say that the old Tiger is back.
Though he’s now better at digesting the swing theories of coach Sean Foley, he’s far from the finished product.
The cracks in his game were exposed on Sunday just as they were in Sydney at the Australian Open and also at Sherwood Country Club, though the difference in the latter event was that Woods recovered with two closing birdies to win.
But in each tournament, the recurrent theme has been that Woods’ game has gone pear-shaped once he’s gotten the lead.
Ironic, given that he was, for 13 years, perhaps the best closer in all of sports.
Some might see it as psychological scar tissue leftover from the scandal, but Foley and Woods believe that it’s more about lacking trust in the new swing under pressure.
Under the gun, Woods tends to revert to the backswing he used under Hank Haney, which is incompatible with Foley’s swing.
When it goes south, Woods tries to resolve the problem by getting more muscular, more violent in his swings.
So far, that’s only exacerbated the misses.
He hit only two fairways on Sunday and just six greens in regulation.
“I just felt I was a touch off,” he said.
Forgetting the understatement for a moment, the fact is that he’s been a touch off many times throughout his career in similar positions and still found a way to win.
If there is something to be read into Sunday’s failure in Abu Dhabi, it is this: What has happened to the world’s greatest short game?
Since he began working with Foley, Woods has changed the way he hits pitches, chips and bunker shots to match the patterns he uses in the full swing.
As Foley’s a scientist at heart, the result is a more mechanical technique which may, in the long run, prove more reliable.
But in the now, it’s served to neutralize Woods’ greatest talent.
Around the greens he used to be an artist, but that imagination’s missing, as anyone could see by the way his short shots ran away from the pins on Sunday, leading to bogeys.
He’s either going to have to find a way to hit more greens under pressure or rediscover that short-game magic because if he couldn’t get away with it in Abu Dhabi against Robert Rock, he’s certainly not going to get away with it at Augusta.