The anatomy of a short-game collapse
For the first time in memory, one of the greatest alpha predators in the history of the PGA Tour looks scared.
Six weeks after botching a dozen short-game shots at the Hero World Challenge, Woods came to one of the easiest courses on the tour and had an experience that was arguably worse.
In addition to the chunked and bladed chips -- he had six more of those -- Woods went into full short-game retreat, using a 4-iron to hit bump-and-runs in obvious pitching situations and putting from off the green in others.
Even with the, um, strategic adjustment, the numbers were ugly. He missed eight greens Thursday and got up and down successfully just three times. On two of his alternative-club chips, he left the ball more than 15 feet from the cup -- a terrible miss for a tour player.
Woods alluded to the mechanical part of the problem in his post-round press conference Thursday, saying some residual "steepness" has stayed in his chipping stroke. It doesn't match with both a new "release pattern" he's using in his work with Chris Como, and he also mentioned a new grind on the sole of his sand wedge.
In English (and in real life), Woods is coming into the ball on a too-vertical angle -- more of a chop than a sweep. Sensing this, he tries to save the shot by getting less vertical -- flexing his right knee, tilting his shoulders back and pulling his hands through impact ahead of the clubhead.
Instead of creating a long flat spot in his swing around the ball (with a big margin for error), he's making the club bottom out in one specific place, with the leading edge exposed to the grass. If his timing isn't right, he'll hit behind it and chunk the chip, or hit too much ball and blade it.
It isn't very different from how he's always chipped, says one top teacher. Woods just doesn't have the sharpness to pull it off anymore. His hands aren't covering up the technical quirk.
The damage is manifesting on more than just the scorecard.
For 20 years, Woods has been a short-game virtuoso. His parabolic chip-in birdie on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters is universally considered one of the greatest shots in major-championship history.
Now, he's actively avoiding what used to be his basic, bread-and-butter shot. He's placing some of the blame for the bad shots on the new bounce grind on his wedge -- the club he presumably hit thousands of times over the last month.
He no longer has a "standard" shot he can play in the dozens of vanilla situations it's required week in and week out, or get up and hit without a second thought under pressure. Woods is now thinking -- hard -- about what used to be as natural as Jimmy Page's grip on a guitar pick.
As another top teacher said this week, it's impossible to play championship-level golf if you're afraid to miss the green.
Or if you aren't around on the weekend.
As the same teacher said, either Tiger doesn't know exactly why his chipping has deserted him, a troublesome thought. Or he does, and it's happening anyway.
That has to be terrifying for the guy who has almost always been able to summon whatever shot he's needed.