ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Unheralded Englishman Robert Rock seemed to be headed for a time warp Sunday against Tiger Woods, who showed signs of returning to top form in the first three rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Instead, it was a Rocky horror show for Tiger.
Rock went head-to-head with his hero in the final round and held his nerves and swing together to post 70 for a 13-under total, one shot clear of Rory McIlroy and two ahead of Woods, Thomas Bjorn and Graeme McDowell.
Rock, a 34-year-old former driving range pro who began the week as the world’s 117th best golfer, offered further proof that Woods’s aura is not what it used to be. Rock had only one victory (2011 Italian Open) in his previous 905 events, and this modest everyman with a solid swing won $450,000 for his efforts.
As for the red-shirted former Superman, his comeback suffered a setback in the desert. After hitting 46 of 54 greens in regulation and 26 of 42 fairways in the first three rounds, Woods hit just six greens and two of 14 fairways in the final round. He finished with an even-par 72.
“Today I was just a touch off,” Woods said. “I was hitting the ball a little further than I thought I would. So, something to look at, to try and figure out.”
Woods was happy with his putting, though, and he seemed to be getting his touch back on the greens, which often takes a while after a break.
“I was right in there with a chance to win and didn’t do it, but I’m pleased with my progress,” Woods said. “Just need to keep building, keep getting more consistent.”
Rock sounded slightly overwhelmed after his round.
"I was just very happy to be playing Tiger Woods today, and that’s a special honor in itself," Rock said. "It’s been a steady progression from when I finished work in the golf shops, and I worked hard at my game, but I didn’t think this would happen."
He needn’t have worried about holding his own. Rock was as solid as his surname from the start, blasting his tee shot on the first and then posting birdies at the second and third.
Woods did show some vintage form early. At the par-5 second, he missed the fairway left, thrashed out of the rough, landed beneath a tree and then scuttled one along to the fringe. Woods calculated the lag putt from 50 feet but delivered nothing quite so ordinary. He set his ball on its path and called it home from five feet out, chasing it down with a one-armed salute and his putter raised to the heavens like Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters. A Tiger roar rose up from the crowds. It was classic Woods, and he did it again at the par-4 third, slashing an iron out of the rough from 147 yards to gimme length. He was two under for the day through three holes.
Rock would have doffed his cap, if he had one. He prefers to feel the breeze blowing his thick mop, and after his performance this week, a contract with a hair-product company can’t be too far away. His look brings back the good old days of the capless Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, who played in the days before golfers became walking billboards.
Woods is always capable of the spectacular, but he was fighting his swing, and some old bad habits resurfaced Sunday. He was missing left with woods and irons; the hook was back. The consistency he showed in the first three rounds deserted him, and his frustration boiled over in an F-bomb explosion as his 8-iron veered left at the par-3 fourth, where he made bogey. He also bogeyed the par-4 fifth before a birdie on nine gave him 35 on the front. Rock went out in 34.
Still, the back nine was where Rock figured to be rudely awakened from his dream as Woods or McIlroy left him reeling in their slipstream. It never happened. Rock seemed to foretell the story when, waiting on the 10th tee, he was disturbed by what he thought was a marshal walking toward him.
“But it was Tiger walking back, and I shouted, ‘Stand still, please,’” Rock said, laughing. “That was embarrassing.”
His request worked better than Rock ever could have imagined, as Woods seemed to stand still for the entire back nine. He didn’t make a single birdie and had to fight his swing and his patience to finish tied for third.
Runner-up McIlroy, who played with Woods the first three days, will surely rue the two-shot penalty he incurred on Friday for brushing sand off the green. Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, who played with Woods and McIlroy the first two rounds, had a poor week with new clubs and finished one under, tied for 48th.
Rock was teary-eyed after his unlikely victory. “Pretty hard to believe I won,” he said. “I was struggling a bit just because I was playing with Tiger, but I managed to cope with it. He was a pleasure to play with. He was really cool. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
He’ll never have the chance. He was reminded that in 30 years time he’ll be sitting in the pub saying, “I beat Tiger Woods.” Rock laughed. “I hope so, yeah.”
Woods’s next test comes in two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.