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Weekly 18: It's not you, it's them

Robert Rock, Rory McIlroy, Thomas Bjorn, Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods is no paper champion.

How do we know? Paper always beats Rock. But Woods could not beat Robert Rock on Sunday.

(As an aside, Rock always beats Scissors. If you’ve seen his hair, you know that’s true.)

There will be plenty of conjecture and hypotheses following Woods’ share of third place at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, but this week’s edition of the Weekly 18 begins with a theory that’s less about him and more about everybody else.

All about the other guys.

I never bought into the notion that entire fields of competitors were intimidated by Tiger Woods, but in the final group of the final round, I will concede that his mere presence across the tee box resulted in more than a few buckled knees.

I also never bought into the idea that Woods’ comparatively poor performances over the past two seasons meant he was “done,” that he would never return to anything resembling the player he was since first turning professional in 1996.

So what should we take from his latest result, in which Tiger parlayed a share of the 54-hole lead into a two-stroke deficit on Sunday afternoon?

Maybe it says nothing about him. Maybe it says everything about the other guys.

For years, it’s been assumed that fellow players wilted under the pressure of playing with Woods – even in situations where they clearly didn’t, such as Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship or Chris DiMarco at the 2005 Masters. In more recent times, though, we’ve seen Y.E. Yang and Robert Rock stand toe-to-toe with Tiger in the final round, getting the better of him in the end.

One inevitable conclusion is that the gap between Woods and other competitors has narrowed. That’s true, but it’s not because he has gotten worse. It’s because the other players are getting better.

As I’ve written before in this space, we could be on the verge of a golden age in the game over the next half-decade. Woods appears to be rounding into his previous form, but unlike the first dozen years of his career, it seems there are more and more players who can challenge him on a week-in, week-out basis.

It’s not just players in the top 10, either. It’s guys like Rock, who entered the week at 117th on the Official World Golf Ranking (he's now 55th).

Many observers will look at Woods’ failure to finish as a negative aspect to his progress. That can be debated, but the fact that other players are now capable of beating him down the stretch should be viewed as a positive for the game as a whole.

1. What I Learned

I learned this week that closing a golf tournament isn’t as easy as it looks from the living-room couch.

At the Abu Dhabi Championship, Rock stepped to the 18th tee with a lead, only to drive his ball into a hazard, from which he took a drop and salvaged bogey to win.

Kyle Stanley only wishes that would have been his result. The second-year PGA Tour player spun his third shot on the 72nd hole into the water at Torrey Pines, then three-putted to go from a three-shot advantage to a playoff. From there, he lost on the second extra hole after missing his par attempt.

It’s easy to watch on TV and scream, “Come on, all you have to do is …” but the truth is, it’s a difficult game that becomes so much harder when the pressure is on. The travails of Rock and – to a much greater extent – Stanley prove once again that playing the final hole with a lead is unlike playing any of the previous ones.

For a more complete look at What We Learned, click here.

Three Up

Lydia Ko

2. Lydia Ko

Stanley nearly won his first career PGA Tour event at the age of 24. Thorbjorn Olesen, just 22, led a star-studded European Tour field through 36 holes. Those guys seem like grandpa golfers compared with Lydia Ko, who became the youngest winner of a professional golf tournament on Sunday, taking the New South Wales Open at the ripe old age of … 14!

There are a number of reasons why younger players are succeeding quicker on the game’s most elite levels – technological advancements and increased technical, physical and mental coaching among them – but it’s becoming clearly evident that this is more trend than coincidence.

Ko, the world’s No. 1-ranked female amateur, won by four strokes in a field that included none other than Laura Davies, who finished a whopping 14 shots back.

If simply looking at her age isn’t eye-popping enough, consider this: At 14, Ko is nearly three full years younger than Lexi Thompson.

3. Brandt Snedeker

You can make the case that Snedeker didn’t deserve to win, that he backed into the victory when he should have been backing out of the Torrey Pines parking lot with a second-place paycheck. You can even make the case that he’s lucky to have his third career title.

But as the old saying goes: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Snedeker was suitably prepared when the opportunity to win presented itself in the playoff. Just three months removed from hip surgery, he hit a beautiful wedge shot on the first playoff hole to make birdie, then got up and down from right of the green on the second extra frame to claim the first-place prize.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Snedeker was able to return from surgery and win, but it should come as a surprise that he was able to do it so quickly. Now that he appears fully recovered, expect big things from one of the Tour’s best short-game artists for the remainder of this season.

4. Robert Rock

While watching Rock seal the deal in Abu Dhabi with a buddy at the local 19th hole – or is it called Hole Zero before the round? – I was posed with an interesting question:

Isn’t he leaving a lot of endorsement money on the table by not wearing a hat?

Yes … and no.

Three Down

Rory McIlroy 

5. Rory McIlroy

It’s not often that a player finishes one stroke behind the leader and finds himself in the “Three Down” section, but McIlroy deserves this demotion.

The fact is, young Rory should have, could have and would have won the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship if not for a careless mistake on the ninth hole of the second round.

With his ball just off the green, McIlroy brushed away some sand on the fringe. If it was on the green, it would have been legal, but as playing partner Luke Donald quickly pointed out, anywhere else means it results in a two-stroke penalty.

“I wasn’t thinking clearly,” McIlroy said, “and just made a very stupid mental mistake.”

Here’s guessing that barring a victory, he would have preferred to finish in second place by three strokes rather than one. Turns out that “very stupid mental mistake” resulted in the differential between winning and losing. Not that it can be easily extrapolated into a victory for McIlroy had he kept from making the error, but he at least would have been two shots closer.

6. Kyle Stanley

It wasn’t Jean Van de Velde; Stanley kept all clothing on for the entirety of the 72nd hole. It wasn’t Robert Garrigus; he didn’t bomb a tee shot into another zip code. It wasn’t even Scott Hoch; his missed putt for triple bogey had plenty of meat on the bone.

No, Stanley didn’t choke so much as he just didn’t hit a single good stroke for about a 10-minute span.

Here’s the anatomy of 'How to Lose a Three-Shot Lead on One Hole':

After a big drive on the par-5 18th hole and a decent lay-up shot, Stanley erred in failing to hit his third shot to the back of the green instead of going for the tucked pin on the front. His shot rolled back into Devlin’s Billabong, but his chances of winning were hardly over.

What he did after the drop with his fifth shot was exactly what he should have done with the third – and not what he should have done with the fifth. Stanley found the back of the green and left himself a ticklish bogey attempt rather than trying to knock one pin-high for an easy two-putt.

For bogey, he actually stroked a decent lag putt to within 44 inches of the cup, but nerves got the better of him and he missed from there, forcing the playoff.

Stanley certainly didn’t play the hole with textbook precision, but it wasn’t the worst mess we’ve seen made in recent history, either.

7. Rickie Fowler’s “flash mob”

Rumors started trickling in more than 24 hours beforehand. Keep an eye on Rickie Fowler at the end of his second round. Something special is going to happen.

That something special was supposed to be a flash mob. You know those things; you’ve seen ‘em on YouTube and in TV commercials. At a specific time in the middle of a busy place, they break into a song-and-dance routine.

Rumor was, a group of fans behind the ropes was to display their Fowler orange and break into the chorus of Tony Basil’s 1982 hit “Mickey” – only, of course, changed to “Rickie.”

Instead, the mob was anything but flashy, quietly waving some not-so-terrible orange towels as Fowler finished up his round.

If the production itself got a D- for execution, it should at least receive an A+ for conception. Too often players are received with a traditional golf clap. The flash mob and this week’s real mob at the 16th hole in Phoenix should prove that creative gestures can be appreciated from outside the ropes.

8. Quote of the Week, I

“It’s not a hard golf hole. I could probably play it a thousand times and never make an 8.” – Stanley, following his triple bogey-8 to blow a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole at the Farmers Insurance Open. Click for more Quotes of the Week.

9. Quote of the Week, II

'It was a wedge and it went in. What more do you need?' – Vijay Singh, showing not even a hole-out for eagle on the par-5 18th on the South Course at Torrey Pines can make him a pleasant interview.

10. Video of the Week

Here's a preview of the upcoming Waste Management Phoenix Open during the 2012 debut of 'Grey Goose 19th Hole.' Click to view.

Three Wishes

Tiger Woods 

11. I wish Tiger Woods had simply given this explanation right off the bat.

In this section of last week’s W18, I wrote about wanting some honesty from Woods in regard to his decision to compete in Abu Dhabi rather than Torrey Pines. I wrote: “The main objective for any person in having a job is to earn money and provide for their family. I would never castigate a professional golfer – Woods or anyone else – for taking a guaranteed appearance fee that helps achieve that goal. All I’m asking for is a little honesty. Woods doesn’t have to disclose monetary figures, but if he simply told us he’s starting the year in Abu Dhabi instead of Torrey Pines because it offers a better bottom line in his bank account, it would be so much easier to respect the decision.”

The impetus for my opinion was Woods’ original comment about why he chose one event over the other.

'I love playing [at Torrey Pines], but I also like playing in the desert as well. And why not? I have never been to Abu Dhabi, and this is the first time, so I decided to mix it up a little bit.”

The reasoning just seemed a little disingenuous to me. Maybe it did to Tiger, too, as he changed his tune in his pre-tournament press conference.

When asked if appearance fees influenced his decision, Woods said, 'I'd have to say yes, it certainly does. That's one of the reasons why a lot of the guys who play in Europe, they do play in Europe, and they do get paid. I think the only tour that doesn't pay is the U.S. Tour.'

He also expressed that title sponsor HSBC’s involvement as a Tiger Woods Foundation partner played a part in the decision-making process, as well.

None of which should come as a surprise, nor should we take issue with it. Like all players, Woods is well within his right to make his appearance decisions based on a number of factors. All we should ask for is a genuine explanation. We finally got it here.

12. I wish the Q-School abolition proposal would be repealed.

Wish I may, wish I might … this one is still going to get approved soon.

The No. 1 reason is – no surprise here – business. Nationwide Insurance is currently in its last year as title sponsor of the Nationwide Tour and the brass in Ponte Vedra Beach needs to ensure a new sponsor will get more bang for its buck. Under the new proposal, the only way a player can jump to the big leagues without first playing the developmental circuit is to pull a Bud Cauley, which is to say, earn enough money in limited starts to claim status for the next season. Of course, only seven players have accomplished that under the modern rules.

All of which means straight-from-college players such as J.B. Holmes, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler or international players like Y.E. Yang, all of whom bypassed the Nationwide Tour by clinching cards through Q-School, would be required to compete for at least one full season in the minor leagues – which in turn makes the tour more appealing to an incoming title sponsor.

Of course, none of those players – or many others – has failed since gaining full-time status, which means that playing on the developmental tour is hardly crucial to the long-term success of players.

So what’s the solution? Keep the status quo. Or, in the case of a necessary compromise, simply skew the numbers a little bit. Under the current format, the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour and the top 25 and ties in Q-School receive cards. I wouldn’t have a problem with those respective numbers moving to 35 and 15 or even 40 and 10.

To do away with Q-School, though, would be a grave disservice to those players who are too talented to forgo the minors. As the fans once chanted in a movie about another sport: “Let them play! Let them play!” Like that team, this new rule bears bad news, too.

13. I wish I could buy stock in Kyle Stanley

You read that right. The 24-year-old just triple-bogeyed the final hole of regulation, then lost in a playoff – and I’m still buying.

Stanley will be remembered over the short term for what happened on the 72nd hole, but let’s not forget what took place over the first 71. For much of the Farmers Insurance Open, he looked like a world-beater, powering his way around Torrey Pines and overpowering his fellow competitors.

Sure, it remains to be seen how having defeat snatched from the jaws of victory will affect him over the short term, but ask any player who’s been there before and they’ll maintain that having the experience of losing in such a situation is better than having no experience at all.

The wins will come for Stanley. His game is too good for that not to happen. His stock may have taken a tumble late Sunday afternoon, but it’s still a blue chip over the long haul.

14. Stat of the Week

Tiger Woods 

Woods is third all-time with 38 career European Tour victories. Of those 38, only 14 have come on foreign soil.

How is that possible? It’s because majors and WGC events are co-sanctioned and count toward that total.

Woods owns 14 career majors, but 11 took place in the U.S., with just his three Open Championship wins coming abroad. He’s claimed 16 WGC titles, but only three (AmEx Championships in 1999 at Valderrama; 2002 at Mount Juliet; and 2006 at The Grove) were outside the U.S.

Count ‘em up and that’s 24 titles won Stateside that also count toward his European Tour total.

15. On the Hot Seat

One of the most popular questions I receive from friends and golf fans is: “What are the pros really like?” Well, basically each one is unique and really, they’re no different from everyone else who can’t hit a golf ball as well.

Just like people in all walks of life, some are ebullient, some are introverted, some remain guarded and some can be very introspective.

Consider Graeme McDowell part of that final category. In a recent sitdown with a small group of reporters, he was extremely candid about the past, present and future of his golf game. Click to read the story.

16. Photo of the Week

Luke Donald

Luke Donald among the 250-foot sand dunes in Abu Dhabi's Liwa Desert, prior to the tournament. View all Photos of the Week.

17. Coming Up

Rumors of Mike Leonard’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Who? Oh, only one of the most important people at the most exciting hole in golf.

Annually clad in a Minnesota Vikings jersey, Leonard is the ringleader amongst a large group of friends and relatives who congregate in the stands next to the tunnel entering the famed 16th hole at TPC-Scottsdale during the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He’s been attending the event since 2000 and organizing creative chants for competitors since 2004.

“It started because everyone knew that a guy like Chris DiMarco went to Florida,” he explained. “I thought it would be kind of cool to find some random community college guy and yell about his mascot.”

Since then, it’s become an art form. Prior to tournament week, Leonard uses Wikipedia and other Internet sites to cull random miscellany about players, then notes the information and prints it onto a laminated sheet. (Hey, beverages can smudge the ink, you know.) He’s been threatening retirement for the past few years, but Leonard confirmed to me in an ultra-exclusive interview that he will indeed be back in the bleachers this week.

“I’ll make the sheets again, that’s for sure,” he said. “Our group will say whatever. We’ll come up with some funny stuff.”

He’s looking forward to a few in particular. One old favorite is chanting the name of adult film star Jenna Jameson when Scott Piercy comes to the tee, as they attended high school together. And a new one may involve a “Tin Cup”-related cry for Kevin Na, who took a 16 on one hole last year.

Yours truly will be hanging out on No. 16 all week – don’t worry; I won’t chant anything – producing live blogs and chats from the craziest hole in professional golf. Stay tuned to for details.

18. And the Winner Is…

I promise: The following pick has nothing to do with the information in the previous section. No, I’m picking Piercy to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open for much different reasons.

In four starts so far this season, he owns three top-25 results, including a T-13 finish at Torrey Pines. Two years ago, in his lone previous WMPO start, he finished T-8. And as a Las Vegas native, he’s used to playing in the heat.

(Resisting the urge to finish that last sentence with “… just like another alum from the same high school.” Whoops. Just did it.)

Piercy broke through for his first victory at last year’s Reno-Tahoe Open. He could be primed for his second this week.