DORAL, Fla. — The shot Tiger Woods hit Sunday onto the 18th green at PGA National, just up the Florida Turnpike from here, was stellar, a 5-iron that settled, menacingly, some eight feet from the hole. There was a time when the ensuing putt — a putt for eagle, a putt for a round of 62, a putt to become the leader in the clubhouse and send a charge through the crowd — would have been an afterthought.
For all the analysis of Woods’s swing overhaul, which has come during the longest victory drought of his career, his return to form won’t be complete until and unless he makes those putts an afterthought again. More than a decade ago in his own instructional book, he wrote, “under pressure, I never seemed to miss.” But during this lull that now dates back more than two years, the evidence, anecdotal and statistical, shows he has missed putts he once made.
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?”
There lies part of the question. Is putting about nerves and confidence, or mechanics and technique?
“Putting is going to be a combination of both,” Mickelson said.
There is, though, debate within the coaching community. Putting and short-game teaching long ago became a cottage industry in golf. Stan Utley, one noted putting coach whose books include “The Art of Putting,” breaks down mechanics to make them more simple, and likes to get his best players to come back to the same fundamentals, thus eliminating doubt and increasing confidence. Dave Stockton, one of the tour’s most prominent putting gurus who worked with Mickelson this offseason, said last week: “It’s all mental.”
Julie Elion, a Bethesda-based mental coach who works with roughly a dozen PGA Tour players, said putting struggles are a combination of mental and physical; she has seen measurements taken of players over putts that indicate a different level of stress.
“Even somebody whose blood pressure or heart rate is fine on the tee box, over a putt, it can get so much worse,” Elion said.
“Putting, it just haunts you,” Stockton said. “The two- or three-footers, the ones you’re expected to make, when you don’t, you’re just devastated. It’s hard.”
There is a theory that maintaining superior putting as players grow older is more difficult. Not only are there more misses to remember, but life experiences — marriage, kids, personal struggles, an endless list — more easily creep into the brain.
“It gets harder and harder and harder, the more you have going on,” Elion said. “It’s harder to block those things out standing over a putt.”
When Woods missed his putt against Watney and was bounced from that tournament, he said before he left the course that he could fix the problems “in a day.” That belief is based in Woods’s original putting lessons, those from his late father, Earl. “I think he was approaching it the right way,” Utley said. “He went after the physical issues.” Before the Honda Classic, Woods listed a slew of problems he had addressed — posture, release of the club, etc.
“It started coming back, the flow and the stroke,” he said, “and started feeling very good.”
But can you completely restore that feeling once it slips away?
“I think you can, because at least you have something to go on,” Stockton said. “What if somebody’s never putted well? Now they’re in deep trouble. But Tiger? He’s one win away from winning a whole bunch. If he could win at Doral, I would think he could make a run. Hopefully, it frees him up mentally more than physically, and he just goes with it.”
On Sunday, with that little eight-footer in front of him, Woods knelt for his read. It started a little right-to-left, then finished a little left-to-right. He rose, stood over the putt, and made his stroke. The ball rolled squarely in the cup, an eagle. If, in the coming month, Woods provides more results like that, then we could also see more of what immediately followed: an emphatic, old-school, meaningful fist pump, the kind that signifies a clutch putt converted — and maybe even a tournament won.