August 31, 2009

Tiger's Putting Hardly A Cause For Worry

Tiger Woods waits for his birdie putt on the 17th green during the final round of The Barclays.

Tiger Woods waits for his birdie putt on the 17th green during the final round of The Barclays.

For all the extraordinary shots Tiger Woods has hit during his pro career, a broad canvas of power and finesse a dozen hall of famers would have trouble matching, his putting is what has commanded the most attention and respect from his peers. But in this least sexy but most important aspect of golf, Woods has been so good for so long on the greens—converting so many pressure putts—that it can dull the appreciation for his mastery.

Of the many words spoken about Woods' career, three uttered immediately in the wake of a 12-footer on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open stand out. "Expect anything different?" NBC's Dan Hicks said after the putt toppled in the high side. The amazing thing is, nobody did.

A little bit the way his failing to hold onto the lead at the recent PGA Championship against Y.E. Yang made one consider just how infallible Woods had been in major championships, the seven-footer for birdie he missed on the 72nd hole of the Barclays at Liberty National GC cast in sharp relief just how rarely Woods doesn't deliver with the putter.

Woods had been befuddled all week by Liberty National's putting surfaces, struggling to figure out their borrows as if he were trying to read a pock-marked parking lot. "It's not often where about half your putts are double-breaking putts," he said Saturday. "We've never played [greens] with this much movement." Woods shrugged off the crucial miss at the 72nd hole that would have gotten him into a playoff with Heath Slocum as a joint misread by him and caddie Steve Williams. His three-foot par effort that spun out on No. 4 Sunday was a different story. "That was a bad putt," Woods said. "Short putt, bad putt."

Those aren't words Woods usually puts together. He was ranked 51st in the field in putting from 10 feet and in at the Barclays, a category in which he is No. 2 for the season. In fact, since the PGA Tour began keeping detailed statistics in 2002, Woods has had only two years when he didn't rank in the top 25 from inside 10 feet. Contrast his numbers with those of two other stars, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, neither of whom has ranked better than 30th in the same category and often much worse (Mickelson is 160th in 2009, Els 171st, although Els, after having added an inch to his flat stick so he can stand up taller—much like Woods—saw his putting perk up in finishing T-2 at the Barclays.)

"Starting around 2000, and for a few years, Tiger was unbelievable on short putts, and it really hasn't stopped," said Davis Love III, marveling at Woods' 64-of-65 performance from inside 10 feet at this year's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. "A machine can't do that. Remember all those things Dave Pelz did, figuring the percentage of balls going in? Tiger makes more putts some weeks than is mechanically possible. There has got to be something mentally that is so much better than everyone else that allows him to hit the best putt he can every time and give it a chance. Paul Runyan said, 'Give luck a chance.' Well, Tiger hits about every one with a chance to go in."

Woods did not, by his standards, putt well in the 2009 majors, requiring 120 or more putts in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship. He is T-23 in putting average per GIR for the season, a category in which he has ranked between second (2000, 2004) and T-102 (2001) during the past decade.

"Heart, definitely much more heart," said Padraig Harrington when asked if he thought important putts were more a matter of science, art or heart. "I think that's what separates the really great putters from good putters. Really great putters just want to hole that putt. I think technique has little to do with it."

None of the greats go a career without having a futile moment with the putter. For Jack Nicklaus one notable glitch was the four-footer on the 71st hole of the 1977 British Open, on which the Duel in the Sun turned. Slocum was on the 18th tee at Liberty National when the groans following Woods' miss were heard. "Usually he makes it, yeah," Slocum said. "I guess you can't make 'em all." Minutes later Slocum holed a Woodsian putt from 20 feet to secure his biggest title.

"Man, to miss as many putts as I did this week, to still have a chance on the last green with a putt, it goes to show you how good I am hitting it," Woods said. On his next pressure putt, he will expect something different, and so should we.