End of an aura
Defeat in desert showdown further proof that fading Tiger no longer strikes fear into rival
MARK the date well: Sunday January 29, 2012. It is the day on which Tiger Woods' renowned air of invincibility finally perished on a Rock -- Robert Rock.
The 34-year-old Englishman went head to head with the greatest player of this generation and tamed the Tiger, who finished third behind Rock and Rory McIlroy in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Tiger tried everything he could to show he was back and in control of his game and of the opposition.
He wore his famous Sunday red shirt. He had his stony game face on and as the round progressed, Tiger stalked very deliberately around greens, leaving Rock to sweat in the sun as he gave himself every chance to hole the putts that would win the day.
The only problem was that Rock ignored Tiger as much as he could, and it worked. As the 14-times Major champion did his slow dance steps on the green, Rock was glancing at the ground, the gallery, anywhere, just keeping himself in his own zone.
How daunting was it for a journeyman professional who had won only one tournament -- the 2011 Italian Open -- in 226 previous events since 2003 to be playing alongside a player of Woods' stature in the final round of a top European Tour event?
"Cacking it" was the folksy expression Rock used to describe his underlying emotion once he realised who would be joining him and Peter Hanson on the first tee for the final 18 holes in Abu Dhabi.
But when it came to going about his business, the former teaching pro was up for the challenge and acquitted himself admirably.
Hats off to Rock but for me, the Tiger's peak years have gone and he faces a long struggle to match, never mind beat, Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Majors.
Here are five reasons why I feel Rock won't be the only man to take out Tiger on Sunday afternoons, whether it be in Majors or regular Tour events.
1 -- The Fear Factor
Gone, gone, gone. Forever. On Sundays, the sight of the red shirt, the roars of the galleries as Tiger strutted his way to the winner's podium was hugely intimidating.
No matter the calibre of the golfer, it had to be difficult to avoid that sinking feeling as he relentlessly drove onwards hole after hole when it counted most.
Now? Forget it. With all due respect to Rock, if he can deal with a Tiger who's in the mood and hungry for a 'W', why should McIlroy, Luke Donald, or anyone else be afraid?
Respect, yes. Fear, no. Hell of a difference from the year 2000 and onwards to now.
2 -- The scandal
It won't ever go away. Even though he's a single man now and can do whatever he wishes, Tiger has to be more concerned than ever about how he plays out his romantic liaisons after his off-course activities got such exposure in the last few years.
And the scandal blew another hole in the myth that he was a title-winning machine with almost unreal focus on golf.
3 -- The injuries
Tiger has undergone bouts of surgery and needed plenty of rehab time in the last few years.
Lots of wear and tear on those joints. Although Tiger looked fit and strong, and early in the week the swing looked very stable, he seemed to be limping ever so slightly at times in the last couple of rounds.
He has to balance working hard to get his swing where he wants it against overdoing the stress on the body.
4 -- The opposition
Look at the Irishmen first. McIlroy could well have won in Abu Dhabi.
He was in Tiger's company for three rounds and looked completely relaxed all the way.
Rory and Graeme McDowell are already Major champions, and G-Mac stuffed Tiger in the 2010 Chevron World Challenge, so they would relish a Sunday Showdown with Woods any time, any place, any occasion.
And then there are the other hungry talents out there among the world elite who know they have the game to win Majors, or who have already won them.
In the former category think Luke Donald, Lee Westwood -- surely these two can nick at least one Major -- Jason Day, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer... heck, even relative unknown Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship last year.
In short, Majors are open to a whole host of golfers nowadays, and Tiger's dominance cannot automatically be expected to resume normal service.
5 -- The Mistakes
Tiger is working on a process of improvement, but he's showing signs of bringing in a couple of destructive shots that are really hurting him when he most wants to stay cool and hit his targets.
He only hit two fairways and five greens in regulation in the last round. A sign of over-eagerness and self-imposed pressure to get that win perhaps?
Or an outward symptom of a realisation he's as likely as anyone to foul up when he most wants to get it right?
Time will tell, but once the inner ring of confidence is broken, it's unlikely to return.