IT HAD been dubbed the “Return of the Giants”. Unfortunately for the sponsor, the two biggest ones both made early exits from the $2.7 million HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and only had themselves to blame.
Rory McIlroy, the world No 1, mis-fired badly with his new clubs, hitting just 12 fairways over two days as he carded a brace of 75s to finish 14 shots behind halfway leader Justin Rose and four below the cut mark.
Second-ranked Tiger Woods at least gave a huge second-day crowd in the UAE capital something to get excited about as he found his mojo following a sluggish start to birdie three holes in a row. His chances of keeping that run going were undone by a camera click that led to a wayward drive at the 17th, but worse was to follow for the 14-time major winner.
Having already been informed there was an issue with a free drop he’d taken from foliage at the fifth, Woods was hit with a two-shot penalty after finishing his round. In eventually signing for a 75 as well, last year’s runner-up finished on three-over to miss out by a single shot - the first time Woods has failed to make a cut in 22 starts in regular European Tour events.
Both Woods and Martin Kaymer, one his playing partners, thought the American was entitled to a drop after he’d found plants to the right of the fairway. As they progressed with their round in the company of McIlroy, however, two journalists following the group queried what had happened with an official and he, in turn, called in tournament referee Andy McFee.
He determined that it had, in fact, been a sandy area, meaning Woods was not entitled to a drop. He should either have played it as it lay or taken an unplayable lie and a one-stroke penalty. The latter, of course, would still have seen him scrape into the final two rounds.
McFee alerted him on the 11th hole that there was a possibility of a two-shot penalty being imposed and, though Woods rallied with three birdies in a row from the 14th and saw a 20-foot putt at the last for another one hang on the edge of the hole, it wasn’t enough to repair the damage.
“Andy said the ball wasn’t embedded because it was sandy based,” said Woods. “I called Martin over to verify it and we both agreed it was. We thought it was embedded. But, evidently, it wasn’t. It’s tough because I didn’t get off to a very good start [with the penalty he was six-over after five] and I fought and got it back.”
McFee described the incident as “unfortunate” and, pointing to Rule 25-2, he claimed that both Woods and Kaymer had simply “got it wrong”. He added: “It’s just one of these situations. Under the rules of the game, on all tours, the embedded ball only applies on a closely-mown area. All tours use the note to that rule which extends it through the green, which means everyone on the golf course except hazards.
“But it’s very specific that rule, and it refers to ground other than sand. Unfortunately this area, whilst it’s got vegetation on top of it, it’s just creeping vegetation and sand, as most is the off-grass areas here. Once we had found out what had gone on, we investigated it.”
Feeling the rules had, in fact, been broken, McFee said he’d approached Woods to let him know so as to give him the best possible chance of making the cut. “I wanted him to know,” he explained. “It might affect his strategy going forward. He wanted to continue and thought he had done the right thing at the time.
“When we got into the recording area, I asked if he wanted to go out and have a look. He said ‘Look, if you think that’s the right ruling that’s good enough for me’. He took the two-stroke penalty and signed the card.”
McIlroy didn’t need any costly infringements to see his event end prematurely. He did that fairly comfortably on his own accord as just about every “Swoosh” with those new clubs was followed by an anguished look as his ball sailed right or left.
He made a spectacular recovery from one such errant blow by chipping in at the ninth for a second successive birdie but, by the finish, McIlroy admitted he’s got work on his hands before his next outing – in a month’s time in the WGC Match Play in Arizona.
“I hit the ball really well last week in practice in Dubai but just sort of gradually got worse this week for some reason,” said the two-time major winner, who raised eyebrows by ditching his new Nike putter after just one round so that he could revert to his trusty Scotty Cameron model.
“I just felt like the greens that I’ve been practising on are a lot faster than these,” he said of that move. “Here it’s a weight issue more than anything else. I can feel the head of the one I used today a little bit better, but the change was to no avail. I’ve got a few weeks off now to work at it and try and get my game in decent shape.”
Away from the drama, world No 5 Rose, the biggest of the giants still standing, again went about his business quietly and efficiently. The Englishman, who has hardly put a foot wrong thus far, added a 69 to his opening 67 and leads by a shot from Welshman Jamie Donaldson (70), Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (67) and dangerous Dane Thorbjorn Olesen (69).