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Even with a lead, Woods no longer intimidates

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When the cameraman moved in close for the obligatory post-round interview, you could really see the age. Tiger Woods looks five years older than he did two years ago, as if his complicated life has forced Father Time to pick up the pace. Fire hydrants and failed marriages can shorten a man’s youth and rob him of his smile, but so can losing, which takes us back to the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Sticks and stones can break your bones, but Robert Rock? The Englishman’s victory while playing in the final group with Woods provided additional evidence: the Dude in the Red Shirt isn’t the same intimidating beast he once was on any given Sunday. As invincible as Tiger looked in firing a third-round 66, there were several others who had moved to the top of the leaderboard with similar scores. A day later, with the game on the line, Woods looked a lot like any other tour pro.

I have downplayed the theory that Eldrick Almighty no longer scares his opponents into competitive submission, but Abu Dhabi has me second-guessing myself. Rock looked utterly unfazed during his battle with the 14-time major champion. If his body language wasn’t quite as aggressive as that of Y.E. Yang, who knocked off Woods at the 2009 PGA, the final result and how it came about were very much the same.

Neither was a bloodbath and neither was a shootout – Rock and Yang both shot 70 to claim their crown. Tiger helped Yang more with a closing 75, but he failed to make a birdie on the final nine against Rock and trailed the rest of the way after bogeys at the third and fourth. Woods had three hours to catch a guy who would shoot even par on the back. Not only did he come up short, he wound up T-3.

My anti-intimidation philosophy prior to Sunday was based on mathematics and probability. Woods’ success at holding 54-hole leads over the years was astonishing, but sooner or later, he’d be beaten – roughly half of all third-rounder leaders on the PGA Tour go on to win. Tiger had done it 14 consecutive times at the majors, meaning he’d demolished the odds, so one could see how Yang’s triumph was bound to happen.

What couldn’t be seen (or measured) was the effect. Heath Slocum outlasted Woods and Steve Stricker in Tiger’s very next start, the Barclays. Although none of the three led after 54 holes and Slocum was paired with Stricker in the group behind Woods, Slocum’s composure down the stretch left some thinking Eldrick’s vest was no longer bulletproof.

Enter the hydrant and more than two years out of the real Sunday heat. Woods did perform nicely to beat K.J. Choi last month at the Chevron, but unofficial events with 18-man fields are what they are. As Rock proved, the Chevron wasn’t an omen, but that doesn’t make it an aberration, either. At least not yet.

Overall, Tiger made significant progress in Abu Dhabi. He swung the club wonderfully for most of the week and claimed a share of the lead with another superb Saturday. The fact that Rock beat him was just as much a product of Rock’s coping with the pressure as it was Woods’ inability to hit greens or make putts. Yes, Woods parked his final two drives in the left rough and hit a rather squirmy fairway wood from an awkward lie on the 18th, but most of the doubts about his return to form focused on his swing, not his skill and mental toughness down the stretch.

Greatness breeds the highest of standards, and to many who consider Woods the greatest they’ve ever seen, their perspective is forever rooted in his decade-plus of dominance. So guys like Robert Rock no longer lie awake on Saturday night suffering from a severe case of Red Shirt Insomnia. Abu Dhabi was a step forward, but Woods still hasn’t done anything to leave them tossing and turning, either.

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