'Rocky' holds off crouching Tiger
IN the movies, 'Rocky' is a boxer and the 'Eye of the Tiger' is his theme tune.
Now golf has its own compelling version after one time range pro Robert Rock, 'Rocky' to his mates on Tour, stared down Tiger Woods as he delivered a knockout final-round performance at the Abu Dhabi Championship.
Yet for all the heady romance of Rock's stunning second victory in 227 events on the European Tour, the two strongest messages from four dramatic days in Abu Dhabi were posted by Rory McIlroy and the vanquished Tiger himself.
Despite a slipshod final-round 72, in which he managed to find just two of 14 fairways and five greens in regulation, Woods showed enough power, consistency and control over the first 54 holes of this tournament to suggest he'll once again be a force at the Majors.
Don't be surprised if it's at April's Masters... or if Tiger (36) and McIlroy (22) set Augusta National ablaze after lighting the touch-paper with their enthralling head-to-head confrontation in the opening three rounds in Abu Dhabi.
These two golfers clearly spark something in each other and are likely to forge a rivalry as dynamic and exciting as that of Nicklaus and Palmer.
"I hope so," said McIlroy, when asked yesterday if he expected to be in Tiger's company a lot this year. "The way he's playing, I suspect I'll be doing quite well if I'm in his company."
Ireland's US Open champion was quite pleased to hole out from six feet at the last for the fourth birdie of a closing 69 which lifted him into sole second on 12-under, one behind Rock but, more significantly, one ahead of Woods.
Without Friday's two-stroke penalty for brushing sand from in front of his ball on the fringe at nine, McIlroy might have won, though he showed absolutely no regrets.
"The lads have been calling me 'Basil'," joked McIlroy. "It's just one of those things. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. I felt I played pretty solid out there today in pretty tricky conditions. My game's in really good shape and, overall, I'm happy with it."
McIlroy gave a splendidly mature 72-hole performance as he defied ring-rust from his mid-winter break to shoot 22 birdies, more than anyone else in the tournament. Also, he consistently made key putts at crucial moments, for example the par-saving putt McIlroy holed from 10 feet at 14 yesterday.
He impressed Tiger during their first encounter on Tour. "I haven't gotten a chance to be around Rory a lot, so this was quite a treat," said Woods. "He's a great kid and an unbelievable talent.
"He's so young yet he's got a Major Championship behind him. He's not afraid to try shots, which is really cool to see, and it's just a matter of time before he just gains more knowledge.
"You can see he's learning," added Tiger. "All it's going to take is more experience, just more years on Tour getting the right scheduling and the right preparations, the whole thing. That's just going to take a little bit of time but he's on the right track."
McIlroy played in the group ahead of Tiger yesterday. The fans following the Ulsterman could be counted in their hundreds, while a gallery of thousands trekked across the desert for a glimpse of Woods, whose first appearance in Abu Dhabi doubled this year's attendance over four days to a record 82,000.
Those spectators got a stunning glimpse of Tiger, the voracious 14-time Major champion of old, on the par-five second hole. In keeping with his overall performance yesterday, Woods pulled his tee-shot way left of the fairway and had to play his next from a crouching stance under the branches of a tree, cleverly bunting his ball 70 yards down the fairway to the front edge of the green, some 60 feet from the cup.
Tiger hit the putt perfectly and, as it arrowed-in on the hole, a voice near me roared excitedly 'it's going in, it's going in'.
As another birdie followed at three and Tiger eased to 13-under, the tournament was his to win. Yet Rock, buoyed by a remarkably assured start, kept his nerve and shoddy play would see Woods drop shots and lose momentum on four and five.
So it continued. A birdie at nine followed by a wrecking-ball bogey six at 10. McIlroy sympathised with Tiger, saying: "The wind made it pretty tricky to work out yardages out there and the pin positions were in tough places and the greens were firmer and a bit tufty."
Struggling to find the measure of the swing he has recently developed with coach Sean Foley, Woods failed for only the ninth time in his career to win after holding or sharing the lead going into the final round. A final-round 70, which he rounded off with a nail-biting bogey six after blocking his drive right into an impossible lie at 18, would be enough to secure the scalp of a lifetime for Rock (34) who 10 years ago worked on a driving range in Lichfield, Kent.
The understated Englishman is best remembered in Ireland for displaying uncommon dignity in his sudden-death defeat against Shane Lowry and, it seemed, all of Clara on a wet, wild and windy Sunday at the 2009 Irish Open in Baltray. Though well known for never wearing a cap or hat over his thick crop of hair, Rock showed his dry self-effacing wit when asked yesterday what people might've remembered him for before he became the man who beat the Tiger. He merely shrugged and said: "Not much."
Now he'll be forever known as the Rocky Balboa of golf.