x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fans left scratching heads at Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

For two days, the gallery was galvanized by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy but the remainder of the tournament will be quieter.

Golf fans lined the fairways and putting greens just to catch a glimpse of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in action during the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Golf fans lined the fairways and putting greens just to catch a glimpse of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in action during the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Well that wasn't part of the script. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, the world Nos 1 and 2, respectively, Nike Nos 1 and 1 (you try ranking that one), the biggest draws at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, the biggest draws anywhere, and both out before the business end of this weekend begins.

Woods missing out only because of a two-stroke penalty handed retroactively for a free drop he took on the fifth was the kind of surreal end the day did not need.There was confusion at the time it happened, but that had evaporated in the mist of a whirring, stirring approach that made the green from there, a 200-yard Tiger special.

How will the tournament feel now? Just how much a hole their absences create became increasingly apparent through yesterday's round.

Because at one point, trudging around the course, the crowd became the fourth participant in the group and, through some pretty rough golf, a story in itself.

Of course, the vast, vast majority of those who came here were following these two – and by happy default, the three-time Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer.

But at times it seemed more relevant to follow the contest off the course than on it; namely, which of the two was rousing the crowd more.

And sure, McIlroy has become big enough to be first-name Rory and is the future of the game, but how big can you be in front of the guy who made the game as we know it? You really have to be around a crowd following Woods to appreciate his meaning to the sport.

The "Go, Tiger!" shouts are a staple, of course, abundant and loud even as he was shanking drives, fluffing approaches and missing putts through four bogeys on the first five holes of the day. The hard cores whispered dissections of almost every shot. And nothing got the crowd going more than a solid Woods tee shot.

Every tic, every little shake, every muttered query to his caddie, people were hanging on to.

McIlroy is getting there, but he is not there yet. At the ninth, when he chipped in a birdie (his second and last birdie of the day) from fully 75 feet out, an outrageously good shot, a crowd of girls erupted. "Rory! Rory!" and then a "c'mon Ireland!"

Woods? He made par mundanely and got about the same reaction.

As Woods later walked off the 17th, a fan tried and failed to get his attention. Stood next to him, his friend part-consoled and part-joked: "Oh, he gave you a head nod, I'm pretty sure he gave you a head nod." To be head-nodded by Tiger Woods? Priceless.

Meanwhile, Kaymer, poor Kaymer who outplayed both comfortably through two days, got the polite applause of afterthought and not, by an admittedly incomplete survey, a single personalised chant through 18 holes.

The golf perked up for Woods, at least, through the back nine. As he birdied through holes 14, 15 and 16, and got himself on the right side of the cut, it was tempting to think he was doling out McIlroy a life lesson free of cost.

McIlroy was playing more and more like a man distracted by the attendant flotilla of big stardom. "I knew it was going to be a tough week with everything going on," he said later. "But I was just looking forward to getting to the golf course and getting back to what I do and what I'm comfortable with."

He had even reverted to his old putter, a not-so-ringing endorsement of the new equipment that he has been using for all of one day. He put it down later to the slower greens here, but when asked whether his new mega-money contract allowed it, he said, "I'm not here to talk about my contract. I'm here to talk about my golf, and today it wasn't so good."

Woods played those three holes very much like a man who has lived this life for years and years, a man able to put aside everything, even the fact of his own poor form, and simply grind his way to survival. For three holes, every shot that needed making, he made.

Afterwards, Woods said that he fought hard to get to the point where he thought he could play over the weekend.

He won't, McIlroy won't, and unfair as this may sound to everyone else, the tournament will be quieter for it.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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