ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – “It’s a process,” Tiger Woods allowed in familiar tones. Not that the golf world has any interest in the slow and steady.
For the better part of 17 months Woods has preached patience, urged all to take the long view. In a wireless world, on-demand results are an occupational hazard.
For Woods the fast track to success has taken detours, first at the Masters in 2010 and again last year, then at the Australian Open and now at the hands of a converted driving range pro from England with arguably the game’s best mane.
His victory at last month’s Chevron World Challenge was prologue to this week’s breakthrough against a marquee field, but on a quiet Sunday Woods struggled to hit fairways, greens and any meaningful putt on his way to a closing 72 and a third-place finish at his 2012 season opener.
As Woods took to the first tee just before lunch it was the same red shirt, same steely glare, but not the result we’ve come to take for granted when the former world No. 1 enters the final turn with at least a share of the lead.
He birdied No. 2 from under a Eucalyptus tree, kept pace with someone named Rob Rock with another at the third but then didn’t build on his fortunate start.
He was three back after back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5, cut it to a one-stroke deficit with five holes to play but didn’t hit a fairway and just two greens the rest of the way to finish two strokes adrift.
“I just felt I was a touch off,” Woods said. “I played well enough I thought to win the golf tournament, unfortunately I just didn’t get it done.”
He putted well enough to win, posting 24 putts on Sunday including nine one-putts. Just three of those one-putts, however, were for birdie and he spent much of the day playing defensive golf from surprisingly penal rough.
Part of Woods’ misgivings were about distance control. Three-woods flying 320 yards, drives bounding through fairways, pleas of “bite, bite . . . bite” from Woods filling the air ultimately nixed Woods’ chances at his first official victory in two years.
But if Woods was concerned with any of this as he wrapped up his stay in the desert it was his newfound length, not a worry that the “process” has been upended. “I’ve got to figure that out because I was hitting the ball further than I normally do,” Woods said.
What Woods wasn’t doing on Sunday was moving toward the emergency exit. The “process” doesn’t change whether he lifted the Abu Dhabi hardware or faded into a desert sunset.
The path Foley and Woods embarked on in 2010 was dramatic, some would even say bold or needless. But for four days there were too many good shots than not on a tight, winding golf course to make his long flight back to south Florida via London not a sleepless journey.
On Saturday, Foley texted Golf Channel that he was happy with what he was seeing in Woods’ swing, and even following Sunday’s struggles Woods was surprisingly upbeat heading into his first PGA Tour start of the season in two weeks at Pebble Beach.
“There’s plenty of big events to go, but I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made so far. Basically since Australia,” Woods said. “I just need to keep building. Keep getting more consistent.”
In short, this is the new normal, at least in the short term.
Instead of invincibility, we have indecision. The guy who was undefeated with 54-hole leads in a major until Y.E. Yang in 2009 now leaves the door open for doubt.
Perhaps it is simply part of the rebuilding process and on some level the aura was still there, just ask Rock, an emotional sort who overcame a penalty drop at the last for his second European Tour title.
“It doesn’t get an awful lot harder than playing with Tiger Woods other than maybe playing in a major,” Rock admitted. “I’ve watched pretty much everything he’s done. Everybody is a fan of Tiger Woods.”
And everybody expects wins and they expect them now. It is the nature of our society, but not the nature of Woods’ process.
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