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Tiger’s Lost Touch

MARANA, ARIZONA | Putting is so simple and so tortuous. The easiest stoke in golf. The most agonizing stroke in golf.

Johnny Miller took to putting his last few years on Tour with his eyes closed. Ben Hogan, as he aged, despised the very concept, wishing all a golfer had to do was hit to a place on the green, because wherever the place was Ben could get there. He just couldn’t get the ball into the cup.

The man with the putting woes these days is Tiger Woods, who not so very long ago unquestionably was the finest putter on the planet earth, and maybe every other location in the universe.

“The greatest pressure putter I’d ever seen since Jack Nicklaus,” was the legitimate observation to ESPN radio by Butch Harmon, once Woods’ instructor. “There was no doubt about that. He made every one he had to make every single time. And he just doesn’t do it anymore.”

He didn’t do it a couple of weeks ago in the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Or he might have won. He didn’t do it at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship. Or he might have won. At least he would have gone past the second round.

Woods thinks it’s mechanical, listing his troubles as bringing the putter back shut and blocking the ball right. Hey, the final hole in the loss to Nick Watney, Tiger had a five-footer and didn’t hit the cup. “I should be able to fix it in about a day,” was the Woods’ thinking.

Then why didn’t he fix it in the days preceding the Accenture? Or before the final round of the AT&T? Maybe, as Harmon said, it isn’t mechanics, it’s nerves. Maybe it’s not as easily fixable as Woods thinks.

The lesson had been well learned: Never underestimate Tiger Woods. He won after layoffs. He won on a leg that needed surgery. What couldn’t be done, Tiger Woods did. Except these last two years he hasn’t been doing it.

“Tiger Woods,” said Sports Illustrated, “is a 36-year-old with high mileage.” And baggage. And memories of the way it used to be, which could be positive – “I did it before, I can do it again” – or negative, as he tries to locate the past.

He was four-and-a-half years on Tour, already a superstar, when his instructional book, “How I Play Golf,” appeared in 2001. “I had never seen a putt I didn’t like,” he wrote. “… Under pressure, it seemed like I never missed.”

The man was confident, and he had reason to be. He’s missing these days. Missing often. Missing in critical situations, albeit that birdie-birdie finish which won the 18-man Chevron World last December made us believe anything was possible. Now everything appears impossible.

Going head-to-head with Woods at Pebble, and whipping him big time, Mickelson offered the sort of upbeat report that is litany for the pros, that success is just around the next fairway. “All it takes is one week,” Phil said of Tiger’s game. “He’s really close.”

His putts, however, are also just really close, and nothing more. Golf we’ve learned is an evil, unfair game, in which a two-foot putt counts as many strokes as a 341-yard drive, which is the distance one of Woods’ balls traveled from the tee in the Accenture. You have to get the ball into the hole. Tiger has not done that.

His scores the two rounds he played in the Accenture at the Ritz-Carlton Club, in the foothills north of Tucson, were not atrocious. The first day, against the Spaniard, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Woods had three birdies, a bogey and a double-bogey, even par for the day; the next, in the 1-up loss to Nick Watney, Tiger had three birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey, one over.

“I didn’t miss a shot coming in,’’ said Woods. “Unfortunately I didn’t make a putt when I needed it.”

If Tiger has lost his touch, his magic, he’s also lost his ability to intimidate. Fernandez-Castano said before their match Woods was beatable, and after losing, 1 up, rued the missed opportunity, insisting, “If there was one day to beat Tiger, this was it.” For him, not for Watney. Or at Pebble for Mickelson.

“We don’t see him miss putts like that very often,” a compassionate Watney said after Tiger five times in their match couldn’t make one inside 10 feet. Truth tell, we have seen him miss putts like that, too often of late.

A statistic that might mean little or conversely mean a great deal: In 2009, the last season before his world collapsed, Woods was second in strokes gained putting. In 2011, he was 45th, and that was up from 109th in 2010.

The cliché is one of the oldest, and the most accurate: Drive for show, putt for dough. Tournaments are won or lost on the greens.

“Every putt can be buried,” said Woods, forever the optimist. Absolutely. Yet these days, putting is burying Tiger Woods. Sure, it could change, as Mickelson said, in one week. It also could stay this way forever.


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