With the Masters now a month away and his last major championship nearly three-and-a-half years ago, Woods faces questions he never has before: Now that the tinkering with his swing seems to be approaching completion, will he regain his supremacy with the putter? More over, are his struggles physical or, more ominously, mental?
“I can’t neglect what I do on the range,” Woods said at Doral Golf Resort on Wednesday, a day before he joins the rest of the top 50 players in the world for the WGC-Cadillac Championship. “But I can also start delegating a little bit more time to my chipping and my putting.”
The questions about putting aren’t only related to Woods. Phil Mickelson arrives here feeling he’s in the mix because, as he said, “My putter is back.” Rory McIlroy rose to the top of the world rankings by beating Woods last week at the Honda Classic, but he needed to make a steely six-footer at the 15th to breathe easy coming in — and he ranks first on the PGA Tour in a newfangled stat called “strokes gained putting.”
By his own admission, Woods’s swing change, which began in late 2010 with new coach Sean Foley, has taken away from his work on the greens. Anecdotally, the evidence of putting struggles through Woods’s first three events of 2012 is striking. A five-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole of his second-round match at the Match Play Championship against Nick Watney that never touched the hole. Short misses early in the final round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, gaffes that allowed Mickelson to run away from him.
Statistics, so fickle in golf, also suggest a decline. “Strokes gained putting” is designed to show how many strokes a player makes up or loses to the rest of the field on the greens. The numbers go back to 2004, and from that year through 2009, Woods ranked out of the top 10 on tour only once; he never failed to gain strokes on the competition. But beginning in 2010 — a span in which he has no wins on the PGA or European tours — Woods has ranked 109th, 45th and his current 101st in that category. He is now giving .112 of a stroke to the field per round.
“I always equate it to a guy that’s 24 years old in the off-hand pistol shoot at the Olympics, wins the gold medal — and by 28, he can’t even make the team,” former U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller, now an analyst for NBC, said last month. “Putting is a lot like that in that the hole starts shrinking up for most people. . . . He’s made an awful lot of clutch putts and put himself in an awful lot of pressure situations and he’s had a lot of success. But you wonder, like the off-hand pistol shooter, how many times can you do that and have perfect nerves?”