ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Robert Rock held his nerve Sunday to beat U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship for the biggest win of the Englishman’s career.
The 117th-ranked Rock shot a 2-under 70 for an overall 13-under 275 to beat the 22-year Northern Irishman by a shot and the 14-major winner by two. Woods finished in a tie for third with Thomas Bjorn (68) and Graeme McDowell (68).
Woods started the final round tied for the lead with the unheralded Rock. He appeared poised to win his second tournament in a row after ending a two-year winless drought with victory last month at the Chevron World Challenge.
But the control Woods displayed for much the weekend abandoned him Sunday and it was Rock who held it together down the stretch.
“I didn’t hit the ball as well as I would like to,” Woods said. “Today I was just a touch off. I was righting the ball through the fairways. I was hitting the ball a little bit further than I thought I would … So something to look at, and something to try and figure out.”
Woods started strong and it looked like he might pull away from Rock, sinking a 40-footer on No. 2 for a birdie and then chipping to within a foot of the cup for a second birdie on the third. But Rock -- who said Saturday he was a bit overwhelmed to face his idol -- didn’t blink. He also birdied the first two of three holes to keep pace.
Then Woods began to unravel.
He started spraying his drives into the thick rough and fairway bunkers, resulting in the first of three bogeys. When Woods wasn’t missing the fairways, he was scrambling to save par as he did on the 11th when overshooting the green. As he approached his shot in deep rough just off the 11th green, he sighed heavily and let out a stream of obscenities under his breath.
Woods managed to save par on 11 by sinking a 12-footer and Rock just missed a birdie putt. Woods pumped his fist and appeared to be regaining the momentum when he pulled within one shot of Rock on No. 13 when the Englishman had one of his three bogeys. But the 34-year-old Rock birdied two of the next three holes to seize control.
Rock wobbled on the 18th when his drive landed in a pile of rocks near the water, forcing him to take a drop. But he recovered beautifully, reaching the green in four and then two-putting for the win.
The loss is the second straight time Woods has failed to win with at least a share of the lead after 54 holes. He lost the Chevron World Challenge in 2010 after going into the final round with a four-shot lead over McDowell.
Woods acknowledged it wasn’t the way he wanted to start the 2012 season but said he took solace from the control he showed the first three days and the putts he made over the final three days. He missed out on his 84th win and the fifth time in nine years to open the season with a victory.
“Obviously the ultimate goal is to win and I didn’t win,” Woods said.
“I hit the ball good enough to win the golf tournament this week,” he said. “Today I just didn’t give myself enough looks at it. Most of my putts were lag putts. I didn’t drive the ball in as many fairways as I should have. Some of the balls were running through. Other balls, I was just missing. It was a day I was just a touch off off the tee and consequently I couldn’t get the ball close enough to give myself looks.”
Rock, meanwhile, did what he thought was impossible, beating Woods head to head for only his second victory in 227 European Tour events. And with the theme song to the "Rocky" films being sung by fans, he came up with a true knock-out performance.
"I really can't believe I have done that today," Rock said. "I was just very happy to be playing with Tiger. That's a special honor in itself."
"Robert played great," said Woods. "He made a couple of key up-and-downs and a couple of beautiful iron shots down the stretch."
McIlroy's closing birdie for a 69 looked as if it might give him a playoff when Rock's drive down the same hole headed toward the lake. It stopped short of the water, but in the hazard amongst rocks and plants and, with a two-shot lead, he wisely elected to take a penalty drop.
Short of the green in three, his pitch came up 25 feet short and still left him with work to do, but after holing birdie putts from 10 and six feet at the 14th and 16th his touch did not let him down and two putts completed the greatest day of his career.
McIlroy was runner-up for the second year running, but will remember this one for the incident when he brushed sand away just off the green midway through his second round and suffered a two-shot penalty that, in the end, was the difference between victory and defeat.
For years, Rock worked in the Swingers Golf Centre in Tamworth, England, as he says, "selling Mars bars and watching Tiger win majors." He was 26 before he made it onto the European Tour and 31 when he finally tasted success at last year's Italian Open.
"It's been a steady progression and I've worked hard, but I didn't think this would happen," he admitted.
In addition to Woods, all the world's top four were present. No. 1 Luke Donald managed only 48th, while Lee Westwood's 17th place means McIlroy will regain second spot from him in the next world ranking.
The most dramatic finish, however, came from McDowell. He made a hole-in-one on the 12th -- Sergio Garcia and Jose Manuel Lara did it in the first round -- chipped in on the next and then closed with two more birdies.
That does not tell the full story, though. The Ulsterman thinned his third shot at the 18th and, after hitting the grandstand behind the green, the ball rebounded some 30 feet to within six feet of the flag.
Like McIlroy, though, McDowell was left to rue something earlier in the week. He went in the water and double-bogeyed the 17th on Day 1 after his driver broke.