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Sunday, January 29, 2012
Five things we learned this week in golf

By Farrell Evans

Last year at the British Open in Sandwich, England, Sean Foley boasted that Robert Rock was one of the "greatest hitters in the world." Tiger Woods' 37-year-old swing guru said that he had been studying the Englishman's swing on YouTube for three years.

This past week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Foley was singing the praises of Tiger's ball striking.

"His routine looks significantly cleaner. He looks like he's more cognitive -- he's playing the game," Foley said after Tiger's third-round 66 at Abu Dhabi that left him in a tie for the lead with Rock heading into the last day. "But I've been seeing him hit the ball better for some time now. It's just a matter of time, I think.

"He's definitely hit it best in the field and that's a pretty strong field for ball striking."

On Sunday, the 34-year-old Rock was paired with Tiger and admitted before the round that he was a little bit nervous about being in the same group with the former No. 1 player in the world. But he wouldn't need his best game to beat Tiger, who hit only one fairway on the inward half and just five greens in regulation in the final round.

Rock, who got his second European Tour win at Abu Dhabi, didn't so much beat Tiger Woods as he managed to play his own game and not succumb to the pressure of Tiger's glorious past as a 14-time major winner.

Rory McIlroy, who finished a shot back of Rock at 12-under, 1 shot better than Woods, has been vocal in the past about his desires to compete against a rejuvenated Tiger. Last August in a tune up for the PGA Championship at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman was asked if it a resurgent Tiger was "scary" news for the field.

"I wouldn't use the word scary," said McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open Championship winner. "It'd be maybe a little intimidating if you knew for sure if [Woods] was going to play the way he did in 2000, 2001, but no one knows that."

On Sunday, Rock and McIlroy had to beat only the Tiger of 2012. Though Tiger displayed moments of greatness in Abu Dhabi, especially in that third-round 66, he couldn't pull his whole game together in the latter stages of the final round.

For some time now, most of us have measured Tiger's future against the backdrop of his past, but perhaps that's an unfair perspective, given that he's an aging player with bad knees.

His 71 PGA Tour wins don't matter much now to most of these young 20-something players who didn't have to face him in his prime. McIlroy has talked a lot about being on the highest stage with Tiger and beating him. It's a dream of most of the players who play in his era. But Tiger is never going to win another tournament by 15 shots, as he did the 2000 U.S. Open.

Sure, Rock's 2-under-par 70 on a tough golf course was very solid. Sure it must be tough to go about your business with the crowds and pressure that comes with playing alongside Tiger. But the burden of the past is something that we should all let go, as we see how Tiger performs in this next phase of his career.

I know that Foley has looked at old videotape of Tiger's game from the heyday of the early 2000s, like most of us nostalgia-loving golf enthusiasts. But that's the wrong place to find hope in Tiger's future.

He's a different player in a different period of the game from the one that he came to when he turned pro in 1996. Robert Rock beat a very different man at Abu Dhabi from the one he might have idolized a decade ago. But that shouldn't take away from his win. He still beat one of the world's greatest players.

Lessons learned
For most of the week, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines was being discussed in terms of who wasn't playing there. Tiger Woods and six of the top-10 players in the world were in Abu Dhabi. In the U.S., you might have considered Torrey Pines an afterthought, if you hadn't been watching the Abu Dhabi tournament in the middle of the night on the Golf Channel.

But by Sunday afternoon, 12 hours after the Abu Dhabi event ended, I hope you were watching Kyle Stanley throw away a 3-shot lead on the 72nd hole to fall into a playoff with Brandt Snedeker, who beat him on the second extra hole. Snedeker, who got his third career win with the unsuspected gift from Stanley, couldn't have been too thrilled to see a colleague implode after playing so well all week. But pros don't mind backing into a win. By the end of this year when the 31-year-old Snedeker is probably on the Ryder Cup team, no one will remember how he won this early season tournament.

In the end, both players can take lessons from what happened Sunday afternoon.

As a second-year player on tour, the 24-year-old Stanley will struggle with this defeat for a long time, but there are some good lessons from the albatross that could help him down the road. As a young player, the native of Gig Harbor, Wash., will have lots of opportunities in the future to hit that wedge on the 72nd hole with less spin so that it doesn't roll into the water. He'll have other chances at the little 4-footer he missed in regulation that would have sealed the tournament for him.

It wasn't just one shot that costs him in a final-round 74 that included three bogeys, a triple and four birdies. In sports, we like to blame failures on the missed free throw or field goal, but there are a lot of little things that put that individuals in a position to make that clutch shot. So hopefully, Stanley won't dwell on any one thing. Hopefully, he'll see how the accumulation of mistakes on his final nine holes led to that last 3-putt that finally gave the tournament to Snedeker.

Snedeker, who was a top candidate for one of Fred Couples' Presidents Cup captain's picks in 2011, is a legitimate star. At 31, the former U.S. Amateur Public Links Champion is in his sixth year on tour. He first came in the limelight at the 2008 Masters, where he finished in a tie for eighth after shooting a 77 in the final round. That performance is memorable for his post-round interview, when he openly wept. He couldn't explain why he was crying, because he had been laughing before he came to the lectern. But it was clear that he was overwhelmed with emotion by the gravity of the situation.

On Sunday at Torrey Pines, Snedeker stayed poised and fought all day, despite starting the final round seven shots back of Stanley. Snedeker's 5-under 67 was highlighted by a birdie on the 18th hole that put him three shots back of Stanley. At this point, he's trying to lock up solo second place. Not in a million years does he imagine what Stanley is about to do on 18. But that's golf on the PGA Tour.

Even if you don't think you have a chance to win the tournament, you're always fighting for something. That's a lesson that I'm sure Snedeker has learned through the years.

A Monty moment

Though Tiger Woods is no longer the world No. 1, his longevity at the top of the list places a shadow over almost anybody who dares to carry the mantle.

Since Luke Donald snatched that top spot from Lee Westwood in May, Donald has been the most consistent player in the world. He has won his fair share -- four times around the world -- and he was always in the top 10, winning the money title on both the European and PGA tours in 2011.

For the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the 33-year-old Englishman played with Tiger and Rory McIlroy. It was the first time Donald and Woods played together since Donald became No. 1.

Feeling perhaps sorry for the forced comparisons, Woods defended Donald's right to be No. 1.

"Well, you don't have to win a major to become the No. 1 player in the world," Woods said. "You have to be consistent. You have to play well in the big events, and it's about accumulating points.

"What Luke achieved was a heck of an achievement to have to play both tours full-time and the travel that that takes, and the consistency that you must have to do that."

But Donald couldn't get up for the challenge of playing Tiger head-to-head. His 1-under total was good enough for only a 48th-place finish, 12 shots back of the winner, Robert Rock. As Donald's first event of the season, we shouldn't put too much stock into what the performance says about his readiness to win his first major championship.

But he has reached that Colin Montgomerie moment in his career, when he needs to win a major championship to stamp his place in golf history. The Northwestern University graduate has accomplished everything in golf, except win a major. Though Monty never won in the United States, his decade-long dominance in Europe made a major championship a necessity on his résumé.

Donald might not carry Monty's level of anxiety at this point, but winning majors can't be far off his mind. His consistency is remarkable, but it's just as important for him to get up for the biggest moments, even if they only happen once or twice in a career.

Rickie's time
Rickie Fowler made his season debut this past week at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he finished in a tie for 13th. That's a good sign of progress for one of the game's most promising talents. It's easy to forget that he's only 23 years old. It already seems like he's a lot older and wiser on tour than his years, because of the fame and the attention that he gets from his loud-colored clothes and free-wheeling golf swing that he showed the world in his rookie year and on the 2010 Ryder Cup team.

Fowler should take some confidence from getting his first pro win in October at the OneAsia's Tour's Kolon Korea Open, where he beat Rory McIlroy by six shots. Fowler might have McIlroy's game, but right now he doesn't have the U.S. Open champion's polish. He can be that good if he can bear down on finishing tournaments. In 2011, he ranked a 125th in final-round scoring average at 71.33.

That's not going to get it done on the PGA Tour.

Death of a pioneer
Barbara Douglas, the first African-American chairman of the USGA's women's committee, died Saturday after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. A former IBM Executive, Douglas, 69, was a past president of the National Minority Golf Foundation and a member of the National Black Golf Hall of Fame.

I got to know Douglas when she was president of the National Minority Golf Foundation, which she was instrumental in developing initiatives that would increase diversity in the game. Above all things, she believed that the game would grow as its population grew to reflect society.

Before last year's Masters, the Golf Writers Association of America gave her the Ben Hogan Award, which honors a person for continuing to stay active in the game despite a physical handicap or illness.

"Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it," Douglas, who lived in the Phoenix area, told the golf writers. "I would not let 'The Big C' control my life."

She carried aspects of that mantra in all phases of her life. She never let her race or social circumstances keep her from the top rungs of IBM or from beating down the walls of the golf establishment.

In the end, she taught many of us that golf was more than just a game. For that gift, the game was forever enriched by her generous spirit.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at