August 30, 2009

The Year Of The Miss

As Tiger Woods discovered once again at The Barclays, 2009 has been largely defined by putts that have stayed out of the hole

For all his success in 2009, Tiger Woods still can't help but lament some of the putts he's missed.

For all his success in 2009, Tiger Woods still can't help but lament some of the putts he's missed.

A year ago, when he was just getting into the swimming pool to begin the painful and arduous rehabilitation process, the fear or unknown was that Tiger Woods would lose some of his competitive chi because of ACL surgery.

Woods has, but it's not because he's favoring his left knee.

The Tiger who made bombs on Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines, who ran in putts from across Arizona on J.B. Holmes, who was known to make everything on any surface -- especially Poa annua -- went cold at the worst times in 2009.

That voracious will that made the putts go in even though they wobbled on untrue surfaces was locked in a box. No matter how hard Woods tried to find the key, the must-makes that were game changers in the past never disappeared into the earth. It's Tiger's putter that has gone limp. This has been his year of the miss.

Sunday it was Liberty National. Two weeks ago it was Hazeltine National. Before that, it was the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, or the Masters in April. Whether it was the PGA Tour Playoffs or the majors, Woods left four opportunities on the table that he used to snatch either by attrition, or making the putts he had to -- like the 7-footer on the 72nd hole Sunday, with the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and every eyeball in the golfing universe trained upon him.

Except this time it was different. This time, for the first time on a 72nd hole when he really needed to make one, the aura of invincibility, that impregnable shield, finally cracked under the laws of human nature and the inhumane game of golf. Tiger missed and all around the world there was a gasp.

"My goodness, my goodness," was the first voice we heard, coming from Nick Faldo. "Wow. Well, the planets must be in a different mode this month 'cause Tiger has never, in his last 10 years of his career, hasn't been missing those…"

Jim Nantz was more succinct.

"I have never seen him miss one in a situation like that," he said.

All it did was underscore the story of Woods' 2009 comeback. What needs to comeback in 2010 is the magic in his Scotty Cameron. In lighter moments, he has threatened to go cross-handed belly claw. Those lighter moments were certainly not coming off the 18th greens at Augusta, Bethpage or Hazeltine, when he was smoldering.

Woods was 48th in the field with four three-putts at the Masters, took four more whacks than Lucas Glover on the inconsistent greens at the Open and two more than Yang on Poa at the PGA. He made nothing memorable other than the putt in the dark to beat Sean O'Hair on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill, but there is a tendency to forget the par saves like the 13-footer at 18 on Saturday or the 15-footer at 15 that kept his round going on Sunday.

Starting at Doral for the CA Championship -- his first stroke play tournament since beating Mediate on the 91st hole of the '08 Open -- Woods has been singing the same song. "If you go over the round, the putts I lipped out; those putts lip in, that's 4- or 5-under par right there, no problem," Woods said after posting 71 in his first round with a pencil and scorecard in his pocket.

Never able to figure out the new greens at Doral, he was 74th that week in putting and finished T-9. Other than mud balls and gusts of wind, Woods was either fighting his speed or his line on the greens all year; the putts like the one on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines were lipping out, there were no bombs in his arsenal, the good putts just weren't going in.

"As well as I hit it all day today and to miss that many putts," he said after the U.S. Open. "I've missed them all week, so that's just the way it is."

"I made absolutely nothing," he said after the PGA. "I just have to say [I was] terrible on the greens. And I had it at the wrong time. I either misread the putt or had bad putts. I didn't make anything except for the 14th hole. I think it was the only putt I made all day. I had plenty of looks."

Some say this is just a way of deflecting from his long game, which has been equally brilliant and inconsistent. The bottom line to this point is five victories and two second-place finishes -- not bad for coming off major reconstructive knee surgery.

In fact, for the first time since turning pro in 1996, Woods said at the PGA that considering his ACL, he doesn't have to win a major for year to be successful. But considering the visual displays of frustration and verbal expletives, that's a tough one to believe. As one observer told me, there's stress on Tiger's putter now that never existed before.

Whatever caused it -- competitive rust, simple odds or just a cold cycle -- it's the difference between Woods moving closer to Jack Nicklaus and Woods waiting five months for another chance. "All the other 14 major championships I've won, I've putted well for the entire week," he said after the PGA. "And today was a day that didn't happen."

The ridiculously awkward greens at Liberty National were a hard place to find the zen that some believe comes from the mother's side of his family. In the old days he would talk to his father and Earl would tell him to release the blade or putt to the picture. This time he brought in caddie Steve Williams to help on the reads, but the team miss at 18 was an example of karma being in the wrong place. They both misread the putt by a cup, with Woods not even touching the hole.

Like all the great players, and Woods will eventually be the greatest, there was no admission of weakness.

"If I hit a poor putt I would have been pissed," he said, quite stoically. "But I didn't."