x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

In the company of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and 'Some Guy Ranked No 1'

Chuck Culpepper follows the action at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship from as early as 7.40 in the morning, but so do many others.

Tiger Woods, the former world No 1, during the first round at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Thursday.
Tiger Woods, the former world No 1, during the first round at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Thursday.

For years chunks of galleries have stomped off just after Tiger Woods hits or putts, rudely abandoning his playing partners so that some gifted golfer has to try his shot in changing scenery and mild hubbub.

The habit has begun minimally with superstar Rory McIlroy, so that sometimes on Thursday morning at Abu Dhabi Golf Club Woods would hit and McIlroy would hit and the forgotten player turned out to be ... wait ... hold on ... let's look it up here ...

Oh, the No 1 player in the world.

This is one shiny grouping – Woods, McIlroy and Some Guy Ranked No 1.

"I'm getting there," said Some Guy Ranked No 1, known as "Luke Donald" to next of kin and mildly observant others. He called Woods and McIlroy "huge names in the world of sport and golf".

So they had huge names plus that slacker, the first guy ever to accomplish the amazing feat of winning the money titles in the same year on both the European and US tours. No wonder McIlroy said: "Seven-forty tee times on Thursday mornings don't usually get me that excited but this morning it did."

Infrequently do you see stars before noon on a Thursday. Abu Dhabi got a rare turn.

A decent-sized throng turned up. It proved far more placid and respectful than many Woods-related throngs around this orb. (Thank you, 7.40am) The marshals excelled, and the crowd worked them less than the Woods-Lee Westwood-Martin Kaymer threesome of last February in Dubai. (Thank you, 7.40am.) At one point, just a few holes away from the group, a crane materialised upon a path in the morning stillness, then retreated to a pond. (Thank you, 7.40am.)

In this manageable blob, you did not have to crane for a good view.

Number of languages detected: seven.

Shirts spotted: Australia rugby, New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, Nebraska, University of Virginia, East Carolina University, Manchester United (unofficial) and the usual, unstoppable Abercrombie.

Conversations overheard: One guy won at poker the other night when he never does, another guy skied at Whistler near Vancouver around Christmas (extremely crowded), another guy just had his birthday. It went well.

People did what people do while watching golf in 2012, which means checking emails on smartphones and posing in the walkways between holes so that friends could photograph them right up next to bypassing star golfers, as if the person in the photo could show it later and say: "And then Tiger and I had coffee later on." Spectators who might not have seen the power of a drive from just behind went wow at No 8 when McIlroy sent off a blast.

McIlroy looked muscular, almost enough to play NFL safety after occupying the gym every day of this nascent year. Woods's game looked amply clean. McIlroy and Woods often walked fairways side-by-side chatting about everything from gym routines to dogs to the off-season.

"Does Tiger have dogs?" went a question in the McIlroy press conference.

"Yeah, two," McIlroy helped out.

Thanks, man.

The gallery saw a lot of near-make golf. Woods repeatedly missed putts narrowly but commendably. "It's harder to read them when they are grainy," he said, but "a little bit easier when it's just pure bent," a common human refrain.

Roars were few. Nothing really grabbed for a good long while. Still, McIlroy managed to squeeze six birdies to one bogey out of it for that 67, even as on No 18, well: "I was trying to hit a hard 5-wood and I turned it into the hospitality stand and obviously got away with it. Was able to drop it in the drop zone."

And the ball? "It's probably in someone's lunch."

Finally, on the No 8 green, the group's 17th hole, the smallish mass of spectators curled around the edge of the green near the pin got a little something to recollect.

Set off in the fringe after spending the whole hole in the rough, McIlroy chipped what his caddie JP Fitzgerald had just finished calling a "very makeable" chip. The thing that came from the club plopped down softly, rolled obediently and sank beautifully, giving nearby throats a workout.

Just after that, McIlroy had honours on the last, and the green Rolex clock behind the tee box showed high noon on the dot. Here the day had just begun, really, but a chunk of Abu Dhabi already had absorbed a big bale of starshine.


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