Tiger Woods surges to join Rory McIlroy in contention at HSBC in Abu Dhabi

January 28, 2012

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—The only show in town was again Tiger, Rory and Luke. Every other threeball was a Tom, Dick and Harry. Or Thorbjorn, Gareth and Matteo to be precise. Thorbjorn Olesen, Gareth Maybin and Matteo Manassero set the pace at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with Olesen leading at 7 under par. But Woods and McIlroy are just two shots back.

Those cheeky chaps at the European Tour have decided to group the players in threeballs again on Saturday. That unusual decision is supposedly based on a desire to beat the dark, but it all becomes as clear as the blue Arabian sky when you realize that threesomes ensure that McIlroy and Woods will be kept together at 5 under par. (They would have been split up if players went off in twosomes.) What a stroke of luck. Ahem. Nothing to do with giving the people what they want. Not to mention TV and the sponsors. Robert Karlsson will join McIlroy and Woods in place of Luke Donald who slipped down the leaderboard to one under.

Woods had a tougher time off the tee in the second round, and he showed his frustration on the 14th when he drove left into the thick asparagus rough. Woods slammed his club into the turf twice and yelled at the ground. He saved par, but anger management is clearly still a work in progress. His course management, however, looks perfect. Woods fought his way out of trouble all day (he only hit six of 14 fairways) and he chipped and putted beautifully in a 3-under 69. Just 28 strokes with the short stick was seven better than round one. Afterward Woods gave credit to his coach, Sean Foley.

“Feel like I’m swinging well and a lot of things that Sean and I have been working on are starting to feel very comfortable,” Woods said. “Consequently I’m shooting good scores.”

After his temper tantrum on the 14th tee, Woods stood on the 15th tee just as the chanting call to prayer wafted across the course from a nearby mosque. Karma for Woods, perhaps, whose patience was again being tested by overly officious marshals with foghorn voices making more noise than the spectators they were scolding. Woods and McIlroy chatted all the way to the green. They’ll be booking a buddy trip soon the way they are laughing and joking together. Woods dribbled in a slippery downhill putt for birdie after fizzing an iron to seven feet, and fired off a little half-air punch. His prayers were being answered; Woods is beginning to unlock the secret of the grainy greens that had so perplexed him on Thursday.

“I’m right there,” Woods said. “It’s a bunched leaderboard with the majority of the field within nine shots of the lead, which is pretty amazing. So I’ve got to produce over the next two days.”

McIlroy would have been joint leader if he hadn’t incurred a two-shot penalty at the ninth on the way to posting an even-par 72. He was about to putt from six feet off the green, but he made the schoolboy error of walking up and sweeping away some sand off the fringe. A silly rule, maybe, but he was guilty of breaking the rule of when you can and cannot remove loose impediments. Donald brought it to his attention and said the offense should only warrant a one-shot penalty.

“Just one of those things,” McIlroy said. “Just wasn’t thinking. A stupid mental error. It’s a bit of a—not a weird rule—but a tricky one. Not angry. Just like saying to yourself, ‘You stupid whatever.’ You’ve just got to laugh about it and try to get the shots back.”

McIlroy did just that and admitted that such an incident would probably have derailed him a couple of years ago. It is an indication of how quickly he has matured that he birdied the next hole. A sure sign of class is how one fights back after adversity. He did it earlier in the round, too, after starting bogey, par, double bogey, and rallying with two straight birdies. McIlroy was delighted to be grouped with Woods for the third day in a row.

“There will be a good buzz again,” McIlroy said. “Everyone knows I grew up idolizing the guy. I enjoy his company. He’s definitely got the ball under control. He’s not making many mistakes. Really looking forward to battling over the weekend with a chance to win.”

As Woods walked up to the 18th green, a drunken yahoo yelled, or rather, slurred: “Tiger is back!” It was a good point badly made. And judging by the guffaws coming from within the hospitality boxes around the green, he wasn’t the only one who had been drinking to that.