Updated Jan 18, 2013 10:54 PM ET
Golf, it seems, isn’t as easy outside of a Nike ad.
In what’s believed to be only the fifth time the world’s top-two ranked players have exited early at the same tournament, the Swoosh’s stars swooned in the Abu Dhabi Championship on Friday.
It was a black day for both players, who have much on the line this year, and for Nike, which has gambled $150 million on McIlroy succeeding Woods in the long-term as golf’s biggest star.
And it can’t have felt good, either, for the sheikhs who paid Woods $3 million to show and about half that to secure McIlroy’s appearance.
Woods doesn’t come cheaply, but he’s usually very good value for his money, never before missing a cut when he’s been paid to appear. Indeed, this was the first time in 22 regular European Tour events — eight of which he’s won — that he won’t be playing on the weekend.
Much will be made of the fact that a two-shot penalty incurred during Friday’s second round — for a seemingly innocent mistake — led to Woods missing the cut by a single stroke.
After consulting with playing partner Martin Kaymer, Woods took relief from an embedded lie not knowing that such relief isn’t free on sand. Neither Kaymer, nor McIlroy, who was the third in the featured group, knew the rule, either.
But blaming his early exit on the penalty ignores that he was so sloppy that those two shots carried such weight.
In what is a big year in Woods’ career — he’s now 37 with a major drought entering its fifth year — I expected him to start his season with bang.
If he was disappointed in Abu Dhabi last year when he couldn’t overcome English journeyman Robert Rock in the final round, what to make of this year’s debut?
Woods looked like a man who wasn’t very prepared and hasn’t played a lot of golf since his World Challenge in early December.
His tee shots, often with three wood, were all over the desert — he hit just 11-of-28 fairways in his two rounds — while his powers of recovery just aren’t what they once were.
He turned in 41 on the front nine on Friday. That’s not very good.
Woods did make a game of it on the back, firing four birdies — including three in a row — but inaccuracy on the 17th led to a bogey and then on the closing hole, his 20-footer for the birdie that would’ve given him a Saturday starting time came up short.
“I didn’t hit it particularly well,” Woods conceded.
“I putted great but just didn’t hit it very good. I was struggling with that. I fought hard.
“Got off to a bad start and I battled back and got it to where I thought I could play the weekend, and thought I might have a chance, just post two low rounds. But I won’t be able to do that.”
While Woods will quickly have the chance to redeem himself — he opens his PGA Tour season next week at his beloved Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open — McIlroy has no such chance.
He’s scheduled the next four weeks off and no doubt will be enduring a lot of speculation about his Middle Eastern capitulation.
Many questioned the wisdom of the 23-year-old abandoning the equipment that got him to No. 1 in favor of Nike’s deep pockets.
He was more crooked than Woods with his new Nike clubs, especially off the tee.
Not surprisingly, the Northern Irishman admitted that he was rusty and said the fault for his matching rounds of 75 lay more with “the Indian than the arrows.”
Perhaps that’s true, but it didn’t go unnoticed that after just one day of using a Nike putter, McIlroy went back to his Scotty Cameron Titleist putter.
He explained that the Nike putter was better on faster greens, but it was clearly a touchy subject when reporters pressed him on the change.
“I’m not here to talk about my contract. I’m here to talk about my golf,” he said, “And today it wasn’t so good.”