DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Tiger Woods may be 12 time zones away in Pebble Beach, but here in Dubai, the No. 18 player in the world is still the hot topic of conversation. Robert Rock hasn’t got tired of telling tales of the day he tamed Tiger in Abu Dhabi, and Fred Couples had Tiger on his mind on his return to the desert for the first time since 1996, when he was defending champion.
Couples is a longtime friend of Woods and gave him a controversial wild-card pick when he was the American Presidents Cup captain last year. He didn’t hold back, either, when asked to analyze Woods’s demise and comeback.
“The whole world knows he made the biggest blunder in the world,” Couples said. “But then he stopped playing and had other things to do, and then he got injured. And he’s a humongous practicer. So for him to not go hit balls for five hours daily because of his knee was a huge problem.”
Couples said he had friends keep an eye on Woods after he handed him that wild card and told him that he needed to practice and play.
“He was practicing five hours a day. I’ve never done that in my life,” Couples said. “But if you do that, it’s important to continue to do that. I know [Rafael] Nadal very well and this guy works. He’s an animal. But he’s not going to beat these guys if he says, I’m just going to practice for 40 minutes. And Tiger’s the same. When you’re the No.1 player, you just want to stay there, you just can’t rest. So I think his body broke down.”
World No. 2 Rory McIlroy is back at the course where his fast track to superstardom began with victory in 2009. But as a sports fan and Woods’s new BFF after playing three rounds together in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy said he would be checking the scores from Pebble Beach, but he wasn’t sure what to expect from Woods.
“Pebble at this time of year can be a bit of a lottery with the weather and three courses and a pro-am format. But he’s got a great record at Pebble,” he said.
McIlroy then revealed his encyclopedic knowledge of Woods’s career, noting his 15-stroke victory at the 2000 U.S. Open and earlier that year his reeling in of Matt Gogel, who led the AT&T Pro-Am by seven strokes with seven holes to play.
“He’s played well there before,” McIlroy said. “And from what I’ve seen of him in Abu Dhabi, it looks like he’s well on his way to returning to some great form.”
Woods and McIlroy still finished third and second respectively in Abu Dhabi to 34-year-old Rock, a former driving range professional from the English Midlands who now has rock-star status in Dubai. Rock will be in the marquee group for the first two rounds along with McIlroy and defending champion Alvaro Quiros. In 1998, Rock was selling Tiger Woods polo shirts in his pro shop. This week he signed a two-year-contract to represent Abu Dhabi’s six-star Emirates Palace hotel. (Five stars clearly doesn’t cut it these days.)
“It feels like I’ve won the lottery,” Rock said. He must have, considering he said he would probably turn down $1 million to wear a hat. “I don’t want to wear one,” he laughed. “I’m waiting for the hair deal.”
Rock is still dining out as “The Guy Who Beat Tiger,” and he can’t quite believe what he achieved two weeks ago.
“It felt like I should have been watching him on TV doing his fist pump thing and running across the green,” Rock said. “But obviously I was right there playing with him. I was half expecting that, but it just didn’t quite seem the same when you are playing with him. It was more dramatic on TV.”
Rock said the his final-round pairing with Woods felt like an out-of-body experience, but Woods made it easy for him to relax.
“He was an absolute gent to play with. I assumed it might be a little more difficult,” Rock said. “He could definitely make it more difficult if he chose to. If he wasn’t so polite. He is someone I have looked up to for 15 years, and if he chose not to speak to you, then it would destroy you I think.”
Many Sunday partners of Woods in the past could attest to that.
Rock and McIlroy will compete for a first prize of $416,000 in a field that includes Couples, Quiros, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez, last week’s Qatar hero Paul Lawrie, and John Daly, who finished fourth in Qatar.
Pretty strong field, but Couples explained the obsession with Tiger, even when he’s not around.
“With Tiger, everything is just pushed bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said. “It’s just part of the deal. And he doesn’t have a problem with it.”