Rock reminds us Tiger’s still in comeback mode

There is no official confirmation, but sources say Tiger Woods, winging it back to the States from the United Arab Emirates, texted Kyle Stanley from 30,000 feet above the Indian Ocean to say: “Meet you at Heartbreak Hotel for a cold one. You know the address: at the end of Lonely Street, near Sunday Pain Lane.”

Sunday was one of those weird days in golf. From the serene bluffs of Torrey Pines all the way to that creepy-weird, SuperFriends-esque clubhouse in Abu Dhabi shaped like a enormous concrete eagle, the day would be remembered more for its losers than its winners.

Oh, don’t misinterpret, please. The Robert Rock story is magnificent, from club pro a decade ago to Tiger Slayer in 2012, a hatless wonder letting his fabulous mane blow in the desert breeze, sort of the Fabio of the European Tour. Even his name deserves our awe. Bob Rock! We haven’t seen a handle like this since Jhonny Vegas won at the Bob Hope a year ago. Jhonny Vegas and Bob Rock surely are half of somebody’s dream all-name foursome.

Tiger Woods entered the final round in Abu Dhabi tied for the lead, but he couldn't pull out a victory.
(Getty Images)

Fans got caught up in Rock’s story, staring down Tiger when the two shared 54-hole lead, shooting 70 to Tiger’s 72. They cheered the underdog appropriately, with “Rock-y! Rock-y!” chants. Some even went so far as to sing the hallowed Bill Conti theme music from the grandstands. Who knows? Maybe Abu Dhabi is the Philly of the U.A.E.

Bottom line: Tiger has to know, despite reports to the contrary, you don’t just wing it into the Persian Gulf and mess with a cat like Bob Rock.

And yet, as cool as Bob Rock is, once again the global story is how Tiger, post-Escalade-into-a-tree, is failing to be Tiger. By that I mean the remorseless, ruthless, I-drink-Bob-Rock’s-blood-for-breakfast Tiger. On the one hand, it’s great that Tiger’s knocking on doors, playing well, in the hunt, back in the news.

On the other hand, losing to Bob Rock when they start a Sunday level with each other is another chapter in the e-book bestseller, “A Post-Tiger World: How Official World Golf Rankings and Guys Like Bob Rock Remind Us Tiger Is No Longer King.”

As such, I was fully prepared to dedicate the column’s lead item to a full dissection of Tiger – the good (he’s had a win and a tie for third in his last two starts), the bad (he still hasn’t won an official Tour event in Europe or America since the iPad was launched) and the ugly (he’s now stumbled three times either tied or leading after 54 holes in the last three years).

[ Related: Lack of consistency dooms Tiger Woods in Abu Dhabi ]

But then, Kyle Stanley happened.

Tiger had company.

The Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines had the shame of a JV tournament – no Tiger and the top four players in the world (Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer) were all at Abu Dhabi. Plus, hometown hero Phil Mickelson missed the cut (although it was later reported his daughter had suffered a mild seizure at school last week, and while she’s OK, the lack of concentration is understandable).

Worse, Torrey Pines had no drama. Kyle Stanley, a big-hitting, good-looking kid from Gig Harbor, Wash., a star player at Clemson, was using Torrey as his arrival party. At 24 years old, Stanley could add his name to the list of bright young names crowding the golf landscape – if he could hold on to a five-shot, 54-hole lead and a three-shot advantage on the 72nd hole.

For 71 holes it was Blowout City, and the kid with the well-groomed facial scruff surely would coast home with the win, then celebrate by hang-gliding off a Torrey cliff at sunset.

Except … golf happened.

Stanley laid up on the par-5 18th, watched his third shot suck back into the lousy little man-made puddle they call a “billabong” at Torrey, dropped for four, hit his fifth shot onto the green and, of course, three-jacked for an “8.”

Brandt Snedeker, three shots back and likely in a rental car on the way to the airport, suddenly had an appointment on the 73rd hole. That Snedeker won on the second playoff hole because Stanley three-putted the par-3 16th was less a testament to Snedeker’s 67 on Sunday and all-around excellence than it was to the tragic heartbreak of young Stanley’s nationally-televised implosion.

It was believed to be the first triple bogey on the last hole by a leader to blow a tournament since Robert (Swamp Butt) Garrigus came unraveled in Memphis in 2010. At least Stanley didn’t have the indignity of having his sweat-stained rear-end – never wear khakis in Memphis in June, Robert – shown on CBS, too.

So, yes, Brandt Snedeker and Robert Rock scored big wins on Sunday. Congrats, gents, huzzah, and all that. It’s just that there’s a reason the Greeks invented comedy and tragedy masks.

Barkeep, get Tiger and Kyle Stanley another!

Scorecard of the week

70-69-66-72 – 11-under 277, tie-3rd, Tiger Woods, European Tour Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Abu Dhabi GC, United Arab Emirates.

Tiger’s week is worth more parsing.

For instance, Tiger went from tied for the lead on Sunday morning to a tie for third with Thomas Bjorn and Graeme McDowell – one shot behind second-place finisher Rory McIlroy.

You don’t think that went unnoticed by Camp Rory and Camp Tiger?

Oddly, Tiger made birdie on Nos. 2 and 3 to start the day. Business as usual, right? Tiger is back, the swing changes are dialed in, and he’d back up his Chevron win with a full-field victory.

Kyle Stanley played it cool for 71 holes at Torrey Pines before he fell apart.
(Getty Images)

But he made bogey on Nos. 4 and 5, added another one on 10 and made zero birdies on his back nine. This is Tiger Woods we’re talking about.

Worse, it was how Tiger shot 72 on Sunday. He found only two of 14 fairways and just six of 18 greens in regulation. This, after he hit 46 of 54 GIRs in the first three days. One could draw the conclusion that Tiger’s Sunday “bottle,” as they say on the European Tour, is lacking. How else to explain the disparity between Thursday-Saturday and the Sunday stats?

Tiger keeps saying the swing changes with Sean Foley are a “work in progress,” but that work has gone on for 18 months now, making the “progress” slower than the seismic renovations on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. And we can see improvement in many facets – except for some of those Sunday shots under pressure.

Tiger, suddenly nervous on a Sunday? Chew on that.

My feeling is, Tiger will continue to be a factor on Sunday leaderboards. His swing looks better than at any point in the last two years. Two factors may prevent him from a multiple-win, dominant season: 1. The putter remains maddeningly inconsistent, as if he’s lost some confidence; and 2. The rest of the world is different now. The days of everybody folding like beach chairs when Tiger appears on the leaderboard appear done.

Mind you, Tiger will get his. It’s just that so will everyone else. In many ways, it’ll be more fun than ever.

Broadcast moment of the week

“I’m kind of in shock right now. I don’t know what to say.” – Kyle Stanley, to David Feherty on CBS, moments after missing a short putt to lose a playoff at the PGA Tour Farmers Insurance Open.

If CBS’ Konica Minolta Biz Hub SwingVision camera had taken us inside Stanley’s head at that precise moment, we may have seen the cranial equivalent of burning buildings, raging floods, seismic temblors and shrieking, fleeing mini-people.

What could Stanley say, really? I mean, I guess he could have taken us through the 72nd hole, how he thought the lay-up was the smart play, what went wrong with the wedge that sucked back too much, how he misread the putt to win. … But the fact is, the kid didn’t know what to say. Can’t really blame him.

[ Related: Kyle Stanley falls apart at Torrey Pines ]

You wonder how these things happen, how sensationally-talented pros dissolve like this. Steve Elkington, on Twitter, noted that Stanley’s three-shot lead on 18 essentially boiled down to this: “I’ve got a guy making a $1 million bet I can’t make a ‘7.’ ” Elkington said the smart play would be to bomb it over the green in two, because making an “8” from there is darn near impossible, while leaving the water in play on the lay-up brings “8” into play.

Just goes to show, it’s way easier to play pressure-packed golf from the comfort of one’s own home and Twitter account.

Interestingly, Bob Rock’s win in Abu Dhabi also contained a little 72nd-hole drama. Rock owned a two-shot lead over McIlroy, and hit driver on the par 5 when all he needed was bogey. When he fanned that driver into the hazard then thought about playing out of it, golf fans all over the world were hiding their eyes. Thankfully, his caddie talked him into a drop for a penalty stroke, telling his man: “We can still make ‘5.’ ” Good thinking. Rock made “6” and won by a stroke.

This week was a particularly good week for BMOWs, including Gary McCord’s on-air admission that he’d left his broadcast tower at No. 16 because he was certain Kyle Stanley would hold on to a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole. So, apparently, were the check-writers at Torrey, given that there’s now a photo on the Internet of a check for $1.08 million made out to Kyle Stanley hidden underneath the Torrey bleachers.

McCord said he heard Stanley’s implosion on the radio and had to race back to Torrey for the playoff.

Also a candidate for BMOW: the fans shouting “Rock-y!” for Bob Rock at Abu Dhabi, which warmed my TV screen. Any “Rocky” reference is always welcome, because it’s simply the greatest sports movie ever made.

The Golf Channel’s Renton Laidlaw said of Rock, “Some people might have wondered if he could have coped with the pressure today, but my goodness, he’s coped. He’s grown in stature, hasn’t he?” That had all the shades of Rocky Balboa lying in bed the night before the fight, telling Adrian that all he wanted to do was go the distance, because “if that bell rings and I’m still standin’, see, then I’ll know for the first time in my life I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

Of course, Rocky Balboa didn’t have Bob Rock’s expensive haircut or stylish facial growth, nor did he pocket 347,024 Euros like Rock did. But you get my drift.

Mulligan of the week

Some weeks, this category is a kick-in.

Kyle Stanley will replay the 18th hole at Torrey Pines about 6 million times in his brain this week, from his decision to lay-up to his wedge with too much backspin to his insufficient lag putt to his nerve-laden miss from three feet for an “8.”

Just to show how cruel the game is, when Stanley played the 18th in the playoff, he birdied it without breaking a sweat.

So, let’s go back to the 72nd tee, remind Kyle Stanley he has a three-shot lead for his first win, have him do several yoga breathing drills, let him re-tee and – give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

It’ll be tough for the golf world to top the Abu Dhabi/Torrey Pines double-dip of stunners, especially since Tiger isn’t playing this week – neither at the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open nor at the European Tour’s Qatar Masters.

Phoenix figures to provide some memories as well as a good field including Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley, Fred Couples, Bubba Watson, Nick Watney and Torrey combatants Snedeker and Stanley. Plus, Johnson (‘Stache) Wagner is playing, so figure on some mustache-related hijinks from the miscreants at the 16th hole.

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Brian Murphy writes a weekly golf column for Yahoo! Sports. Send Brian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 30, 2012