McCabe: Five biggest upset losses in Tiger's career

Y.E. Yang of South Korea after sinking his putt to win August 16 ,2009 at the 91st PGA Championship at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota.

Whether you watched it early in the morning or in the middle of the night, what unfolded Sunday in Abu Dhabi was tough to focus on. Tiger Woods losing? No, that’s part of the landscape these days. But losing out to Robert Rock? Unthinkable, perhaps, only history tells us it shouldn’t have been.

Perhaps as yet another testament to how utterly good Woods has been, it’s a shock when he doesn’t come through in crunch time, and there’s a very short list of those times when he hasn’t.

Yet such a list does exist, and for one man’s opinion as to the five biggest upset losses handed to Woods, here it is:

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1. Y.E. Yang and the 2009 PGA Championship

OK, so the South Korean had won a PGA Tour tournament earlier in the year - the Honda Classic, to be exact. But he was still a rookie – and a 37-year-old rookie, to boot – and had spent more years in the military than playing golf at the highest level.

There was more thought given to the heralded pursuers – Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Lucas Glover and Lee Westwood – than the guy who stood on the first tee next to Woods to start the fourth round. We knew nothing about Yang and everything about Woods, including this: He led by three strokes and was 14-0 when having the 54-hole lead in major championships.

Anyone who says he or she didn’t think it was game, set, match before the fourth round even began that day is not being truthful. This was not an early-season warmup in the Middle East or an international team competition. This was a major, what Woods lives for.

It was a mismatch of enormous proportions. For crying out loud, Yang had only started playing golf in 1991, when he was 19, about the same time when the 15-year-old Woods was in the national spotlight.

Yang, who was ranked 110th in the world, had played his first 23 holes in 5 over that week at Hazeltine, his next 49 in 13 under. But it’s what he did over the final 18 holes, shooting 70 to Woods’ stunning 75, that produced arguably the most shocking major-championship finale since the 1955 U.S. Open.

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Costantino Rocca of Europe embraces his wife during the final day singles of the Ryder Cup at the Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande in Spain. Rocca defeated Tiger Woods of the U.S., 4 and 2.

2. Costantino Rocca in the 1997 Ryder Cup

Earlier in the season, Rocca had drawn the dubious task of playing opposite Woods in the fourth round of the Masters. That, of course, was a Woods masterpiece, a 12-stroke win that could lead you to believe only that the unheralded Italian would be no match for the 21-year-old phenom in Sunday’s singles.

But Rocca, then 40 and ranked 115th in the world, made two quick birdies, won three of the first five holes, then slam-dunked a 20-foot putt to save par at the ninth. Perhaps stunned by that roll, Woods then stepped over a 4-footer and missed it to fall 4 down.

“If I play his game, I’m dead already before we start,” Rocca would say later, when asked for his philosophy before the match.

Obviously, the lovable Italian played a game with which Woods wasn’t familiar.

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Robert Rock plays a shot during the final round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.

3. Robert Rock in the 2012 HSBC Golf Championship

It doesn’t register tops on the shock meter, even though Rock came in with a ranking (117th) similar to those of Yang and Rocca. But this was Woods’ first tournament in seven weeks, something of a preseason tuneup, to be truthful, and while he’s still an immense talent, he’s nowhere near the machine he was in 2009 when Yang took him down.

Besides, if you take Rock out of the equation, let’s not forget that Rory McIlroy had a careless two-stroke penalty and a two-stroke deficit and still chased down and passed Woods in the final round.

The most surprising aspect wasn’t so much that Woods stumbled, but the way in which he did so. Having spent three days splitting fairways and hitting greens, he spent Sunday spraying wild tee shots and missing greens in bad spots. Playing head-to-head with a guy (Rock) who had but one win and just a few years ago was teaching at a place called “Swingers,” well, vintage Woods used to put blokes like that away in 11 holes. So it appears that Sunday in Abu Dhabi proved that he’s certainly not “vintage” Woods, eh? But, still, it was stunning.

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Santiago Luna in 1998.

4. Santiago Luna at the 1998 Dunhill Cup

It gets overlooked all the time, and for good reason. Though this championship used to have huge flavor when played in the three-man team format at St. Andrews, it was in October and barely on the radar with American golf fans.

But Woods had a chance to put the Americans into the Dunhill final against South Africa. John Daly was beating Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Mark O’Meara was losing to Jose Maria Olazabal; all Woods had to do was beat the 190th-ranked Luna.

It certainly looked like a lock when Woods went four strokes in front through 10 holes. Heck, he had shot 66-70-66 in his previous three tours of the Old Course that week, so it was over, right?

Wrong.

Woods bogeyed Nos. 11 and 12, Luna sprinkled in a few birdies, then at 17 Woods bogeyed again and was one behind. At the 18th, Luna got it up-and-down from the Valley of Sin to save par, but Woods squandered a chance to keep the match alive when he missed a 4-foot birdie roll.

Luna’s only European PGA Tour victory had come three years earlier, and he did very little after this stunning triumph, but give him credit: to do it on the Old Course was pretty special.

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Ed Fiori

5. Ed Fiori at the 1996 Quad City Classic

If there were any doubts in the minds of PGA Tour officials that Woods was a media sensation like no other, it came in the second week of September in 1996. The media focus was on the second Presidents Cup competition in Virginia – at least until late Saturday rolled around and Woods, then playing in his third tournament as a pro, got into the lead at the Quad City Classic.

With that, the media center pretty much emptied out so that writers could move to Illinois and chronicle the legend-in-the-making.

Alas, it didn’t morph into Woods’ first PGA Tour win, and for the wildest of reasons, too. Fiori, then a 43-year-old with three career wins but serious designs on walking away from the game, made up a three-stroke deficit and chased down the young phenom. Closing with a 67, the man they called “The Grip” passed Woods (72, T-5) and thus put on hold plans to get himself eased into a career as a charter boat captain.

How much of a surprise was this? Consider that in his 18 previous starts in 1996, Fiori had missed the cut 10 times and hadn’t recorded a finish inside the top 20. No wonder a life at sea grabbed at him.

As for Woods, who would go until the PGA Championship of 2009 before he coughed up a 54-hole lead, the stunner against Fiori left him down, but hardly was he out. He earned his first win at Las Vegas two tournaments later, then notched a second win at Disney.

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Notes

Understandably, there was great pride in the extraordinary strength of the Abu Dhabi field. The top four in the world order – Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer – were teeing it up, as well as Nos. 9 and 10, Charl Schwartzel and Jason Day, respectively. Oh, and that guy named Woods, too.

It would be ignorant to say there wasn’t a buzz about the tournament, and there was no shame in promoting it as a good one. But by the fourth round, it was too much to keep hearing the TV announcers refer to it as the best tournament field ever assembled on the European PGA Tour.

That’s pretty disrespectful to the tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. Not only did that tournament last May award more world-ranking points to the winner (64 to just 58 for Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi), but its event rating was 470, compared with Abu Dhabi’s 454.

And whereas Donald, Westwood and Kaymer were virtually non-factors at Abu Dhabi, the ending at the BMW PGA last May was more compelling. There, Donald chased down Westwood in regulation, then won a head-to-head playoff to leapfrog his countryman and assume the top spot in the world rankings.

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Speaking of the world rankings, don’t look now, but Woods has pushed to No. 17 just as his fellow icon from the U.S., Phil Mickelson, has fallen to 16th. Seems like just yesterday when Woods had fallen to 58th and people wondered if he’d even qualify for the first World Golf Championship of the 2012 season.

McIlroy’s runner-up at Abu Dhabi allowed him to hurdle Westwood into second, but if you want to consider how far a few notables have stumbled, consider these: Anthony Kim, 96; Camilo Villegas, 98; Stewart Cink, 142; Trevor Immelman, 143; Angel Cabrera, 147; Chad Campbell, 179; Stuart Appleby 186; Justin Leonard, 209; Henrik Stenson, 218; and D.J. Trahan, 236.

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To many, world-ranking points are gold. Heralded American amateurs Peter Uihlein and Dodge Kemmer earned their first credit as professionals, getting 1.32 world-ranking points each by finishing T-12 in a European Challenge Tour stop in India. Doesn’t sound like much, but it actually was a gut-check of sorts for Uihlein, who went out in 41 for his first nine holes as a professional, only to steady the ship and play his next 63 in 4 under, and he debuts as a pro at No. 887 in your world order.

Then again, for those who still cherish the prize money to these affairs, more proof that the European Tour lags well behind the American circuit. While John Rollins received a check for $408,000 for finishing third and never really having a chance to win, Rock got $347,024 for winning in the Middle East.

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