x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Tiger Woods keeps chipping away on the road to recovery

Round of 66 puts world No 25 top of the leaderboard, but he will not ease up in the final round in Abu Dhabi.

Tiger Woods’s form in the Abu Dhabi Championship this week has helped defy his critics.
Tiger Woods’s form in the Abu Dhabi Championship this week has helped defy his critics.

ABU DHABI // Eighteen holes from redemption. Or another step towards it, at least.

For a man whose life is so intrinsically linked to numbers, those next 18 holes could be fraught with significance for Tiger Woods.

It is 26 months since the last win of substance for the world No 25. This tournament in the UAE capital being the biggest test he could have had, with all of the world's top four players, and six of the top 10, present at the National Course for the Abu Dhabi Championship.

The fact he does not rank in either of those lists is a reminder of how far he has fallen over the past two years. But he is clawing his way back up.

"There's a ton of guys with a chance to win," Woods said of his prospects of lifting the Falcon Trophy, after his third-round 66.

"The field is very bunched. I can't go out there and shoot even par and expect to win. I've got to go out there and get it."

At his peak, Woods was able to play badly and still win. After the 2006 Dubai Desert Classic, he complained about a "two-way miss" he was suffering with his swing.

He still won, though. "That was not a fun way to win a golf tournament," he said back then.

Now he is thankful for small mercies. With his swing remodelled for a fourth time, he can shape the ball in both directions again. He can alter the trajectory. Putts are dropping. It might not be consistent excellence like it was before, but just plain old consistent will do for now.

"It's fun when I'm able to control the golf ball like I did," he said. "I would like to be a little better than I am now. This is a step in the right direction."

There has been something uplifting about having Woods in Abu Dhabi for the first time this week.

The crowds have come out. The sun has started to burn through the wintry chill. Everyone is happy to be here.

For the first time in three-and-a-half rounds, Woods will be split from his perky young pretender as golf's biggest star, Rory McIlroy.

Woods said it had been "a treat" to play with the Northern Irishman. McIlroy, for his part, has seemed to have had a ball in the company of one of his boyhood idols and said of their parting: "No one will be following me anymore."

Woods will go off in the final group at 11.45am with Peter Hanson and Robert Rock, with whom he shares the lead at 11-under par.

Coincidentally, Rock had spoken to his more famous counterpart for the first time yesterday, when they passed the time of day before their respective rounds. It was a moment which was savoured by the Englishman but will certainly be surpassed in terms of gravity when the world No 117 tees off alongside one of the most recognisable figures in sport today.

"He's won 14 majors, he's the best guy I have ever seen play golf," Rock said after signing for a 66. "I'll get the chance to watch a little more closely tomorrow.

"It's an opportunity not to be missed. I just want to experience it. How many chances I'll get to do that, it's not clear."

Hanson, a 34-year-old Swede, starts two shots behind his playing partners but remained understandably enthused by his 64, which was the best of the third round.

"It was one of those days: eight birdies, no bogeys, beautiful blue sky in Abu Dhabi," Hanson said. "It was one of those days when you have the best job in the world."