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No Tiger, Belly Putters – What The Hell’s Going On Out There

The questions come daily, by e-mail, during rounds of golf and later, at the 19th hole. What’s up with Tiger? Does golf need him to get back on his game? Is it good for the game that so many different players are winning majors? And what about the belly putter? Should it have been banned?

Tiger appears to have lost his game, if the way he played when he shot 77-73 in the PGA Championship to miss the cut by six shots is proof. Well, it’s evidence, if not conclusive evidence. He said he was there to win. This wasn’t an experiment to see where he was in his game.

The weirdest thing wasn’t even that he missed the cut in such a big way. The weirdest thing happened when the 18-foot birdie putt that he hit on the seventh hole in the second round came up almost halfway short. That was incredible, as in the true meaning of the word – not to be believed. But it happened. Did he hit the putt fat?

That putt alone suggests that Woods just wasn’t in a championship frame of mind. It must reflect a serious lapse in concentration, or an absence of being present. Where was Woods? Who knows?

His swing problems can’t tell the whole story. Sure, swing flaws produce poor shots. But what causes the swing problems? Don’t errors in the mind find expression in the swing? Can’t a troubled emotional state lead to swing troubles?

Woods has been through what Arnold Palmer said on the Charlie Rose show a “disturbance.” It’s impossible to say whether he will sort it all out and find his game again. It would also be ridiculous to say he can’t find his game again, and win. Woods has so much talent that he could win again. Could. Maybe.

Now to the question of whether golf needs Woods. Well, he can single-handedly bring a tournament to life, as he did while shooting 31 on the front nine in the last round of this year’s Masters to briefly tie for the lead. He’s been far and away the game’s biggest draw since he turned pro in August 1996. Certainly the game could use Woods back in form.

At the same time, the rise of younger players enlightened golf watchers everywhere that there’s more to golf than Tiger. Last year, Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen won majors, demonstrating the strength of golf globally. This year, Charl Schwartzel and Rory McIlroy offered further proof while winning The Masters and the Open Championship, respectively. Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship and demonstrated that American golf isn’t moribund.

It will be especially interesting to follow McIlroy and Bradley, because they’re so young and seem to have star power. McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, was positively Tiger-like in winning the U.S. Open by eight shots. Bradley, 25, was four shots behind leader Jason Dufner with four holes to go in the PGA Championship. He then hit a series of great shots and putts to take advantage of mistakes that Dufner made over the treacherous quartet of finishing holes. That got him into a playoff, which he won. Anybody who watched the final round was rewarded with tremendous drama.

Meanwhile, older golfers were showing that anything can happen in golf, anytime. That’s always been the case, but Woods’ dominance obscured the fact. Darren Clarke, 42, won the Open Championship on his 20th try, while Dufner, previously unheralded, came so close to winning the PGA. Golf fans awakened to the fact that if 156 players tee it up every week in a PGA Tour event, well, there are 156 stories.

And what about that belly putter? Bradley used it to win the PGA. He holed a monster, roller coaster birdie putt on the par-3 17th hole of regulation play the last day, while Dufner watched from the tee. The next week, at the Wyndham Championship, golfers such as Ernie Els and Jim Furyk were using the belly putter. A Tour rep for TaylorMade, who works with players on their putters, said he’d never seen as many players using the long putters. The practice green was full of golfers anchoring long putters against their bellies.

Well, the USGA and R&A never had the courage to ban the long putter, which, as Tom Watson has said, isn’t “a stroke of golf.” Anxiety is part of the game, and long putters help neutralize this noxious feeling by silencing twitchy fingers. But you can’t blame players young and old for using them. They’re legal, and they help. More’s the pity.

But don’t pity the game. There was golf before Tiger and there will be golf after Tiger, whether he never finds his winning form again, or after he retires. Why live in the past? This is the game now, and it has plenty going for it. More than any tournament, the Tiger-less PGA proved that.


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