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Woods, McIlroy leave Abu Dhabi with more questions than answers

Tiger Woods Rory McIlroy
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Ubiquitous building-sized posters across Abu Dhabi proclaimed this the week “When Giants Returned.” The European Tour’s desert swing opener was billed as the unofficial start of 2013, the week when Tiger and Rory embark on the game’s next great rivalry.

But as darkness rapidly descended on the desert, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were unceremoniously embarking to their respective next ports of call. For Woods that’s Torrey Pines and his PGA Tour debut. For McIlroy it’s home to south Florida, or perhaps Australia to support better half Caroline Wozniacki.

Both, however, will spend the long hours to points beyond searching for answers.

For Woods it’s a simple question of mistaken identity. His wayward tee shot at the fifth hole on Friday was supposed to be wedged into a plugged lie – playing partner Martin Kaymer confirmed it as such in quick order. But it turns out the world No. 2 had himself an unplayable lie, so instead of a free drop and a grinding back-nine 34 that the world thought kept him inside the cut by a shot, he was told to add two and travel safe.

“It was tough because I didn’t get off to a very good start today and I fought and got it back,” Woods said of the two-stroke penalty he was informed of by officials after his round. “I was right there and I felt that if I had closed to even par I had a chance going into the weekend. Evidently, it wasn’t enough.”

Video: Tiger takes illegal drop

Video: Woods discusses rules infraction

Before we micro-analyze Woods’ bad drop consider that Kaymer took less than 10 seconds to confirm the ball was indeed plugged and, under the Rules of Golf, he was entitled to relief without a penalty.

Also consider that after initially reviewing the area where Woods’ tee shot at the fifth ended up, a European Tour rules official came to the same conclusion. It wasn’t until later that the official began second guessing the drop and the wheels of justice began moving.

“Tiger called me over and said, ‘Is it embedded?’” Kaymer said. “I said, ‘I think so.’ He just wanted to check and it was embedded and then I walked away.”

This was an honest mistake, pure and simple. Happens all the time in golf, just not that often to Woods, who signed for second-round 75 after the penalty was added to his card and missed the cut by a stroke.

Best guess is as Woods wings his way to Torrey Pines for next week’s start, it won’t be his mishandling of the drop on No. 5 that keeps him awake. He has bigger items to lament, including the fact he hit less than 40 percent of Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s fairways in two days (11 of 28), a little more than half its greens in regulation (19 of 36) and had 58 putts.

It all sounded like more of a spring training card then what we’ve come to expect from Woods in his debuts.

“I didn’t hit it particularly well. I putted great but just didn’t hit it very good,” said Woods, who missed a cut in a regular European Tour event for the first time in his career. “I was struggling with that . . . I have some work to do.”

Still, as Woods headed out of town it seemed the only thing he really needed was a return to the friendly confines of Torrey Pines, which he hasn’t played since 2011 and where he has seven victories including the historic 2008 U.S. Open.

High crosswinds and narrow fairways were the culprit on Day 1 when he carded an even-par 72, while Friday’s card featured a spirited finish that included three birdies over his final five holes. And that was after officials informed him walking off the 11th green that there could be an issue with the drop on No. 5.

McIlroy on the other hand may be doing a tad more soul searching.

With a bag full of new equipment and Monday’s rock show announcement that he was joining the Nike Golf fold behind him, the Ulsterman proceeded to post pedestrian rounds of 75 and kick-started his career with the Swoosh with a last-minute audible to switch back to his old Titleist Scotty Cameron putter for Round 2.

Nike Golf did not disclose the fine print of its new deal with McIlroy and it seems likely there are addendums penciled into the deal that would allow him to make such a move. But if that is the case then why not ease into the new bag from the outset?

It took Woods the better part of a decade to play his way into all 14 Nike clubs, with the last piece (the putter) falling into place at the 2010 British Open. It seems like a similarly languid pace would have been prudent for McIlroy.

Besides, he enjoyed only slightly better results with the old model (30 putts) then he did with the new one (31).

Video: McIlroy talks putter switch

“The greens that I’ve been practicing on in Florida are a lot faster than these,” McIlroy said. “The Nike putter is great on that. But then getting here it’s just a weight issue more than anything else. I can feel the head of this one I used today a little bit better. On fast greens, the (Nike putter) works fine.”

Perhaps the old driver would have worked better on wider fairways.

“Fore left!” McIlroy barked as his final tee shot of the day sailed into the gallery adjacent the 18th hole. It was a common theme in Abu Dhabi, where he connected with just 13 of 28 fairways for two days, and probably McIlroy’s primary concern more so than a last-minute putter switch.

Both players bolt the Middle East with more questions than answers, but for the suddenly thin marquee one thing is for certain – Rory v. Tiger may be poised to move to the next level, preferably on a major championship Sunday, just not this week.