Tiger Woods still searching for game

Updated: February 3, 2014, 1:03 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Tiger Woods birdied the last three holes on Sunday but could not halt a rather dubious milestone in his illustrious career: for the first time, he will fail to finish among the top 20 in his first two starts of a season.

Woods was encouraged with his driving but again struggled on the greens in the final round, settling for a 1-under-par 71 at Emirates Golf Club and his worst finish (T-41) in seven appearances in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

Stephen Gallacher, who played the first two rounds with Woods and Rory McIlroy, won the tournament by one shot on Sunday.

"Unfortunately I turned it around too late. I drove it great today, I piped it all day," said Woods, who hit nine fairways, his most of the week, but required 30 putts. "My iron game was not as sharp as I'd like, and I didn't make anything. I had seven lip-outs. That's quite a few lip-outs.

"I had a quick, easy fix to my grip the other day and from then I drove it great. I still need work out of this rye grass. A little different technique, but it's something to fix."

Woods, who said he planned to watch the Super Bowl on Monday morning (3:30 a.m. local time) before heading to India for an outing on Tuesday, appeared upbeat despite a poor start to the year.

A week ago in his PGA Tour debut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Woods finished 80th after failing to make the secondary cut through 54 holes, his poorest finish in the event he has won seven times.

The 80th-41st place start to 2014surpasses his previous worst, when he tied for 44th at Torrey Pines and followed with a 20th-place finish in Dubai in 2011.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Ross Kinnaird/Getty ImagesTiger Woods finished tied for 41st at the Dubai Desert Classic, marking the first time in his storied career that he placed outside of the top 20 in his first two starts of a season.

In 18 years on tour, Woods, 38, has won at least one of his first two starts in a calendar year nine times, and three times started a year with consecutive victories in his first two starts. He began last year with a missed cut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship but followed with a four-stroke victory a week later at Torrey Pines.

Woods was well down the leaderboard over the weekend, but it didn't appear to bother tournament organizers, who were paying him a seven-figure appearance fee to be in the field.

"He's obviously not on top of his game, everyone wants to see the real Tiger," said Adrian Flaherty, the tournament director for the Dubai event. "To get him in the last group on Sunday and go around like before and shoot 30 on the back like he's done … we all got the excitement.

"To be honest, (Saturday) worked really well because he played early and the crowd in. And they stayed here. Today is almost the same. In a way, there are plusses to (him not being in contention.)"

Flaherty said the tournament would love to have Woods back because "I don't think it ever wears off. The guy brings everything, the whole ballgame, to the tournament.

"I don't think the novelty ever wears off here. I think he is by far the biggest and one of the greatest athletes that's ever been in this country. Everyone is always pleased to see him."

Whether U.A.E. residents will see him next year is likely a matter of scheduling. The European Tour schedule is not set for 2015, and Woods indicated earlier this week he would hate to miss Torrey Pines if there were a conflict -- although he did two years ago when he played in Abu Dhabi.

For Woods, there are more immediate scheduling questions. The Tuesday outing at Dehli Country Club is believed to be for another seven-figure payday and is on behalf of Hero MotoCorp, whose CEO Pawan Manjal, is a big golf supporter. The event is closed to the public.

Although Woods did not say so Sunday, indications are that he will skip the WGC-Accenture Match Play in three weeks and resume his schedule at the Honda Classic, near his Jupiter, Fla., home, starting Feb. 27. It would then follow that Woods would defend his titles at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

In the meantime, there will be conjecture about what it all means.

Hank Haney, Woods' former coach, said on his Sirius XM radio show last week that he felt Woods spent too much time in the gym in the offseason and not enough working on his game. For his part, Woods twice this week referred to his "old coach" and "old patterns" that he reverted to as part of his problems.

On Sunday, Sky Sports lead analyst Ewen Murray said on the European Tour broadcast that it was the "worst I've seen him technically."

And yet, last week at Torrey Pines, when Woods was suffering through one of his worst performances, Sean Foley, his current coach, simply suggested we're just into the first few days of Woods' year.

Woods maintained that there was progress in the Middle East.

"A quick little fix to my grip and that was all good, and the driving was something that I didn't really do very well last week," he said. "This weekend, nice to be able to start piping it out there again and getting it out there with the big boys. When I didn't have my grip back, I obviously throttled back a little bit, try to get the ball in play, and just don't hit it as far.

"I'm able to now start letting it go, a couple of carries in the 310 (yards), 315 range and I hit over the top of them. So that's back to where I should be."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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