Tiger Woods on the right path

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Sunday is a workday in the UAE, so the gallery that showed up for the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship was understandably thin compared to the more festive atmosphere of Friday-Saturday, what constitutes the weekend here.

But you can hardly blame a smaller crowd on that lack of buzz at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Plenty of fans followed the last threesome on the course, packed around every green and tee box, many of them very much looking forward to a victory march by Tiger Woods.

Folks here might not be the most golf-savvy, and the sport might be well down the list of passionate pursuits. But they know a star when he is in their midst, and they know that Woods is the most famous draw in the game, one of the most well-known personalities in the world.

And with no disrespect to Robert Rock, who had plenty of Brits cheering for him, most came to see Tiger get that elusive first W since all hell broke loose in his life at the end of 2009.

Woods was unable to deliver, putting together his worst performance of the week and coming up 2 strokes behind Rock, 34, who won for just the second time in his European Tour career. It made for a deflating feel around these parts.

A decade ago, when Woods was dominating the sport in the midst of winning seven of 11 major championships, Rock was a club pro in England, perhaps selling Woods' Nike gear.

Now he's got a huge trophy for his mantel and a story to tell his grandkids. He played better than Woods -- once unbeatable from such a 54-hole in the lead position -- and he hardly was "cacking'' himself, British slang for being unable to control one's bowels under such pressure. Rock had joked about it Saturday when he learned he would be grouped with Woods, having just met him earlier in the day.

"To play with Tiger today was something that I'll never forget,'' Rock said.

No, it was Woods who was struggling, and likely of little consolation was that his estimated appearance fee ($1.5 million) was more than three times what Rock got for winning ($450,000).

For only the ninth time in his career, Woods failed to convert a 54-hole lead. That sounds like a lot until you throw in that he's held such an advantage going into the final round 64 times. He's 48-for-52 on the PGA Tour, 14-for-15 in majors.

But he's now failed to convert in three of his past five tries, and surely the naysayers will be skeptical when it comes to the state of his comeback.

"I didn't hit the ball as well as I would like to,'' Woods said. "I putted beautifully the last three days. Didn't putt as well the first day. Today I was just a touch off. I was hitting the ball through the fairways. I was hitting the ball a little farther than I thought I would.

"A couple of my 3-woods were going about 320, which I don't normally do, but they were getting out there. A couple of my irons were going further than they are supposed to. So it's something to look at and something to try and figure out.''

It is true that Woods was not off by much on several of his tee shots. He ran into a course that was much tougher than in previous years, with penal rough and a difficult Sunday setup. There was little margin for error. Still, he managed to hit just five greens in regulation after hitting 16 on Saturday and 46 of 54 through the first three rounds. He couldn't manage a birdie after the ninth hole.

But it would be unfair to label this a failure. Woods, in three late-season events in 2011 and his 2012 debut, has shown huge improvement from the PGA Championship in August, when he missed the cut by 10 strokes and looked lost with his golf swing.

He has now finished in the top three in three straight stroke-play events -- third at the Australian Open, first at the Chevron World Challenge and tied for third here. Although some might scoff, golf is not a game in which you simply contend or even win on command.

World No. 1 Luke Donald had his worst tournament in nearly a year, finishing 48th. No. 2 Lee Westwood was a nonfactor. No. 4 Martin Kaymer missed the cut after winning the event three of the past four years. Sergio Garcia finished down the list, as did Padraig Harrington.

On Saturday, Woods had shown some special stuff, hitting those 16 greens and shooting 66. It put him atop the leaderboard. Robert Karlsson, who played with Woods on Saturday and knows a thing or two about his greatness -- he was with him during the third round of the 2008 U.S. Open, where Woods last won a major -- marveled at the improvement.

"I hadn't seen him play like that in a long time,'' Karlsson said Sunday. "It was good to see. We want that.''

So do fans. Most of them are well past the scandal. They don't much care what Woods did in his personal life or how damaged his image, his bank account or his marriage might be.

All of those things were for him to deal with, and he continues to do so. But the true golf fans want to see him back, and the Abu Dhabi Championship suggested he's on the right path.

Of course, there will be differing degrees of what that actually means. Does he have to dominate as he once did? Does he have to win multiple majors?

Woods will tell you he wants to do all of that, but what athlete in any sport is able to duplicate the feats of a decade earlier?

In truth, Woods likely would be content to put himself in position as often as he's done in his past three starts and gear his game toward the majors. A win or two would be nice. And if you look at it from that perspective, there are plenty of positives.

"I'm pleased with the progress I've made so far,'' he said. "Basically since Australia, my stroke-play events have been pretty good. I just need to keep building, keep getting more consistent. Today was a day where I had a chance, and Robert just played real solid all day.''

Woods was hardly satisfied, but you didn't get the feeling he was demoralized, either. Disappointed, yes. But determined to get things fixed.

After the long journey back home to Florida, he's got a week to work on those aspects of his game that were shaky on Sunday.

Then it's on to Pebble Beach, where the Monterey Peninsula, not the Desert, will be the setting. It's 12 time zones away, with cool temperatures instead of warm ones. It will be the PGA Tour, not the European Tour.

But Tiger will be at the center of attention, again.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.