ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Robert Rock held his nerve Sunday to fend off U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship for the biggest win of the Englishman’s career.
The 117th-ranked Rock shot a 2-under 70 for a 13-under, 275 total and beat the 22-year Northern Irishman by a shot and the 14-time major winner by two. Woods finished in a tie for third with Thomas Bjorn (68) and Graeme McDowell (68). Matteo Manassero (69), the 18-year-old Italian, and George Coetzee (70) of South Africa were a further shot back.
Woods started the final round tied for the lead with the unheralded Rock. He appeared poised to win his second straight tournament after ending a two-year winless drought with a victory last month at the Chevron World Challenge.
But the control Woods displayed for much of the weekend abandoned him Sunday, and it was Rock who held it together down the stretch.
“I didn’t hit the ball as well as I would like to,” Woods said. “Today I was just a touch off. I was righting the ball through the fairways. I was hitting the ball a little bit further than I thought I would … So something to look at, and something to try and figure out.”
Woods started strong and it looked as though he might pull away from Rock, sinking a 40-foot putt on No. 2 for birdie and chipping to within a foot of the cup for a second birdie on the third hole. But Rock — who said Saturday he was a bit overwhelmed to face his idol — didn’t blink. He also birdied two of the first three holes to keep pace.
Then Woods began to unravel.
He started spraying his drives into the thick rough and fairway bunkers, resulting in the first of three bogeys. When Woods wasn’t missing the fairways, he was scrambling to save par as he did on the 11th when overshooting the green. As he approached his shot in deep rough just off the 11th green, he sighed heavily and let out a stream of obscenities under his breath.
Woods managed to save par on 11 by sinking a 12-foot putt and Rock just missed a birdie putt. Woods pumped his fist and appeared to be regaining momentum as he pulled within one shot of Rock on No. 13 when the Englishman had one of his three bogeys.
But the 34-year-old Rock birdied two of the next three holes to seize control.
Rock wobbled on the 18th when his drive landed in a pile of rocks near the water — forcing him to take a drop. But he recovered beautifully, reaching the green in four and then two-putting for the win.
“It’s pretty hard to believe that I managed to win today. Very surprised,” said Rock. “I played good. So I guess I had a chance from early on, a couple of birdies made the day feel a little bit easier.”
“But it’s difficult playing with Tiger. You expect almost every shot to threaten to go in. I felt a lot of pressure and couldn’t afford any lapses in concentration at all.”
Rock said he drew strength from the struggles of Woods and his other playing partner Peter Hanson (78) and used that to bounce back from several bogeys.
“I was just focusing on trying to hit fairways and then hit my iron shots as good as I have been and give myself chances at birdies,” Rock said. “Both Tiger and Peter struggled on occasions on a few holes and I managed to keep my ball in the right position and didn’t put myself under too much stress until the last, which was a relief.”
It was a storybook ending for Rock, who rose from a club pro to join the tour in 2003 and only got his first tour win last year at the Italian Open. The victory will elevate him into the top 60.
“It doesn’t get an awful lot harder than playing with Tiger Woods,” Rock said. “So I guess barring a major championship, I know I can handle that again. So that’s pretty nice to know.”
The loss is the second straight time Woods has failed to win with at least a share of the lead after 54 holes. He lost the Chevron World Challenge in 2010 after going into the final round with a four-shot lead over McDowell.
Woods acknowledged it wasn’t the way he wanted to start the 2012 season but said he took solace from the control he showed the first three days and the putts he made over the final three.
“Obviously the ultimate goal is to win and I didn’t win,” said Woods, who missed out on his 84th career victory. “I hit the ball good enough to win the golf tournament this week.
“Today I just didn’t give myself enough looks at it. Most of my putts were lag putts. I didn’t drive the ball in as many fairways as I should have. Some of the balls were running through. Other balls, I was just missing. It was a day I was just a touch off off the tee and consequently I couldn’t get the ball close enough to give myself looks.”
While most of the attention was on Rock and Woods, several players surged into contention down the stretch.
McIlroy, playing ahead of Rock and Woods, birdied No. 18 to move to 12-under and give himself a chance. But he came up short with four rounds of par or better golf being undone by several costly mistakes — the worst coming Friday when the third-ranked McIlroy was penalized two shots for brushing away sand in front of his ball in the rough of the ninth hole.
“You know, you’ve got to take the positives,” McIlroy said. “It’s the first week of the year, and you know, it looks like it’s going to be the second year in a row here that I’ll finish second.
“But still a very good start to the season and something I’ll build on.”
McDowell played the most exciting round of the tournament Sunday, with an ace on No. 12, a chip-in on No. 13 and then a shot off the grandstand at No. 18 that led to a birdie and a tie for third. For the 2010 U.S. Open champion, it was a good way to start the year after failing to win in 2011.
“Any time you come back in 31 shots on a Sunday, semi in the mix is always a good day’s work,” said McDowell. “It was certainly an eventful last seven holes with a hole-in-one and a nice ricochet off the grandstand at the last.”