Sunday, January 29, 2012
Updated: January 30, 8:24 AM ET
For Tiger, things still need working out
By Bob Harig
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Perhaps it is rare to think of Tiger Woods mingling among a crowd of people wealthier than him, but there he was Sunday afternoon on the 18th green at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, as U.A.E. sheikhs worth billions tried to administer a trophy presentation.
They gave prizes to players who made aces during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, thanked everyone from sponsors to media to groundskeepers to spectators, then acknowledged those who finished behind winner Robert Rock, including Woods, who tied for third along with Graeme McDowell and Thomas Bjorn.
Woods had about as much interest in sitting there as he did in taking part in the awkward pre-tournament dance ritual performed for special occasions. That's part of the deal when taking appearance money, and so Woods suffered through it with nary a pained look.
It is that kind of patience that is serving him well now as he tries to get his golf game to the level he and so many others expect.
Sure, there is the occasional burst of anger, some looks of disgust. But for the most part, Woods is sticking to his process, putting the pieces back together in his golf swing and not fretting over some recent close calls.
For someone who became used to winning with such regularity, perhaps it is frustrating to be unable to close out the likes of Greg Chalmers (Australian Open) and Rock, players to whom he has no business losing. Both are what would be best described as journeymen pros. Their victories with Woods in the field and in contention would be considered career feats.
Woods is clearly looking at the bigger picture, and if you consider where he was less than six months ago, his recent run is pretty impressive. He hardly looked ready to play, let alone compete, when he showed up for the Bridgestone Invitational and then the PGA Championship back in August, where he missed the cut by 10 strokes. He looked better at the Frys.com Open, but still finished tied for 30th.
Since then, it's been three top-three finishes in stroke-play events, including a win at the Chevron World Challenge. Throw in the Presidents Cup, where his iron play was impressive, and he's on a nice four-tournament run.
Clearly there are still things to work out. Woods has had difficulty putting all aspects of his game together. On Thursday, he hit the ball beautifully but couldn't make any putts, settling for a 70 on a day when he hit 17 greens. On Sunday, he 1-putted nine times and needed just 24 putts, but hit only five greens. His short game let him down with a couple of poor chip shots.
Perhaps more disturbing, if you simply look at the stats, was the lack of fairways hit -- only two all day, just one on the back nine.
Did the new Sean Foley swing falter under pressure?
Maybe it did at times. There were enough misses to make you wonder. But there were also shots, several of them, that looked perfect coming off the club. Several times throughout the tournament, Woods shouted at his ball to "bite'' or "sit'' -- off the tee.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club had a number of doglegs and curving fairways which required something other than a straight tee shot. To deal with that, Woods often took out a 3-wood -- and hit it too far. Same with some of his approaches to greens.
"A couple of my 3-woods went about 320 and a couple of my irons shots, an 8-iron from 180 and numbers I don't normally hit,'' he said. "I've got to reassess that and try to figure it out. It's something I have to look at.''
Woods is hitting the ball better. His strength has returned after a summer of inactivity due to injuries. No longer is he violently swinging at the ball, hoping to regain lost distance. He swings and the ball jolts off the club, seemingly with little effort.
That's the physical part. What is still to be figured is the mental side. Could it be that Woods needs to learn how to win again? He suggested otherwise earlier in the week, saying his win at Chevron seemed like old times. "I've been there before and it shouldn't feel any different,'' he said.
But before, he closed the deal, and in two of his past three stroke-play events, he failed to finish against players who were just glad to be there.
Perhaps that is just part of the process. Woods continues to say it is, and seems no worse for it.
Now it's on to the Monterrey Peninsula, where more patience will be a necessity. From sheikhs on the 18th green in Abu Dhabi to the pro-am drama that is the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Woods is resisting the urge to fire at the flag.
And right now, that must be a very difficult thing to do.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.