AUGUSTA, Ga. — The ball rested barely 4 feet from the cup, and everyone surrounding the green, in the grandstands or watching on television fully expected Tiger Woods to hole that putt and move on.
It was the 18th hole of his quarterfinal match with Lucas Bjerregaard at the WGC-Match Play, a do-or-die moment. Woods shockingly missed, the ball hitting the left edge and spinning out.
Woods was as stunned as those watching, his tournament over. He dragged the ball back to the same spot, tried the putt again and missed it worse, later saying he misread the putt.
This is but a single instance, something that could have happened on any hole, during any round at any tournament.
But does it portend anything more?
Both statistically and anecdotally, Woods has had more struggles on the greens than at any time — save for perhaps one year — in his legendary career.
In consecutive tournaments earlier this year, Woods three-putted six times, a first in more than 20 years for back-to-back events. Two of the four worst putting weeks of his career occurred in 2018 — and he twice made equipment changes before going back to his trusty Scotty Cameron putter, which he is using now.
And the number of times he calls in caddie Joe LaCava to help with a read at least appears to be more than usual, as Woods, for most of his career, has done it on his own.
Augusta National, of course, is no place to have putting problems.
Although he looked and felt better on the greens at TPC Sawgrass for the Players Championship and at Austin Country Club for the WGC-Match Play Championship, the Masters, which begins Thursday, presents a different test, one that is stressful and exacting.
And one that is imperative he passes if he is to have any chance at winning a fifth green jacket.
“The longer you play, we’re all going to have patches where we just don’t putt well and patches where we make everything,” Woods said. “And I’ve had my share of runs where I’ve really played well. For me personally, if I can see the line and I feel like I’m releasing this thing and that toe’s flying over, I feel good. That’s a good feeling for me.
“Other guys don’t putt that way, don’t feel that way, but I grew up in more of a feeling like Bobby Locke and [Ben] Crenshaw and those guys who let the putter go. If I do that, I feel great.”
WOODS WILL NOT CONCEDE that putting gets more difficult with age. At 43, he is subject to the conjecture that you just won’t be as good as you used to be on the greens. For every Jack Nicklaus, who seemed to defy age with the putter, there is an Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson or Ben Hogan who did not.
“I may have been luckier than most going into their 40s,” said Crenshaw, a Hall of Famer who won two Masters, his last in 1995 at age 43. “It was a notion that a lot of people had, that when you get into your 40s, your putting starts to go. You certainly hear that, and you try not to believe it, try not to think about it. But I think it does slip for some people. It’s kind of fascinating to me.
“When you don’t see results, you experiment a little bit. You have to change things up, but be patient. Everybody goes through streaks where you feel a little bit helpless.”
Woods has never been one to make big changes when it comes to putting. Posture appears to be the biggest adjustment, and that has evolved at times as he’s dealt with his numerous back issues.
When he skipped the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month due to a neck strain, Woods noted that he had difficulty getting in the proper position to practice putting effectively.
Steve Stricker, 52, who defied putting problems in his 40s, has helped Woods at times, mostly notably the week of the 2013 WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, where Woods went on to win.
“There were a few things there,” Stricker said. “His alignment was bad, his path was not so good. Everybody kind of works themselves in and out of bad habits. That’s the nature of this game. You’re always trying to fight those bad habits.
“I watched a lot of the Mexico tournament [where Woods struggled on the greens]. It didn’t look bad. And it can be so minute. It can be a misread. It can be speed. It can be the slightest of things. He’ll be fine. And that’s what I tell him. You just have to trust it.”
Stricker, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain who has 12 PGA Tour victories, won nine of his titles in his 40s but still agrees that putting is more difficult with age.
“I can relate to that,” he said. “I seem to work a lot harder at it with a little less success. It might be your eyes. Your eyes start to change, you start to see things a little bit differently. It gets into your putting, and then there is the mental side. You don’t see it the same, and doubts start creeping in.”
For what it’s worth, Woods had vision correction surgery (LASIK) in 1999 and again in 2007, when he realized he needed to have the procedure performed again. It took place soon after the Masters because “my vision started slipping. I was starting to get headaches from squinting all the time.” He added at the time: “Mine stayed the way it should, for what, eight years now? That’s pretty good.”
Woods has not said if he has had any more corrective eye surgery since 2007.
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PUTTING IS MEASURED in many ways. Putts per round is a basic metric, and typically anything under 30 is considered good, although so many factors go into that: how many greens did the player hit? Where were his approach shots on the green?
Putts per green in regulation average is another metric, but of course does not take into consideration greens missed.
A more modern measurement is a statistic embraced by the PGA Tour in recent years called “strokes gained.” It was developed by Columbia University professor Mark Broadie. Is a method of comparing a golfer against the tour average, and the Tour has calculated data back to 2004.
“Strokes gained putting” shows how a player’s putting ranks compared to the tour average. Dominic Bozzelli leads the PGA Tour with a strokes gained putting average of 1.135 per round — which means he beats the field average by more than 1.135 strokes per round. Woods is ranked 78th at .191. For 2018, he was 48th.
But two of his worst measured strokes gained rounds occurred in 2018 – at the Wells Fargo Championship (-1.46) and at the Memorial Tournament (-1.46). The other two that were in the top four came in 2010, which happened to be the worst putting year of his career.
With strokes gained data, Woods’ best putting years were from 2004 to 2009 when he was first once, second three times, fifth and 21st. He was 109th in 2010. His last full season before 2018 was 2015, when Woods ranked 32nd.
Broadie offered up some numbers not provided by the PGA Tour. He made his calculations that also take into account strength of field. Although Woods has played 21 rounds, Broadie is using just 15 rounds — one of the rounds at the Farmers Insurance Open is not measured via the tour’s Shotlink technology; and he did not include the rounds played at the recent World Golf Championship because it is match play and not stroke play.
For strokes gained putting, Broadie has Woods ranked 66th on the PGA Tour compared to 44th last year. (He is sixth in overall strokes gained, compared to fifth in 2018).
There are other ways to dive in to putting. The tour keeps stats from every conceivable distance. For example, Woods is 84th on the PGA Tour making putts from the range of 4 to 8 fee. From exactly 5 feet, he is tied for 50th. Broadie has Woods ranked 148th on putts from 0-6 feet (compared to 97th last year), which would be -0.10 strokes gained at that distance.
“The biggest issue appears to be his short putting,” Broadie said. “But it’s a small sample.”
And then there is three-putt avoidance. Woods has three-putted 14 times out of 288 holes to rank 209th on tour. Jordan Spieth is tied for 162nd. Justin Rose leads the category, having three-putted just three times in 360 holes.
When he three-putted six times at the Genesis Open, Woods said that he “putted as badly as a human being can putt.” Then a week later in Mexico City, he did it again. During the final round in Mexico City, Woods missed six putts inside 10 feet and three inside 6 feet. “My good putts didn’t go in and my bad putts were atrocious” he said.
“The big key in any major championship is not making double (bogeys) and avoiding three putts,” said one of Woods’ former coaches, Hank Haney. “Penalty shots have killed him in recent years, but avoiding three putts has always been a key to his success at Augusta. You can make up for a three-putt, eagle the 8th or a par-5.”
Sounds easy enough (and Woods did make two eagles at Augusta National last year) but Woods ranks just 83rd on the PGA Tour in par-5 scoring average at 4.61. In 2013, when Woods won five times, he ranked fourth. And for a majority of his career when he was No. 1 in the world, he was always first or second.
NOT EVERYONE BELIEVES that 40 is some sort of demarcation line in putting. Phil Mickelson, 48, who has won tournaments in each of the past two years and won three times in 2013, when he was 43, has put considerable effort into beating back Father Time on the greens.
“I spent time with [short-game expert Dave] Pelz, and we did a lot of math and a lot of study of technique, and we tried to develop ways to maximize the odds,” Mickelson said. “Whether it was changing stroke, launch angle, loft, hand position, shaft ankle. Whether it’s a slice putt, a hook putt. We spent a lot of time analyzing that. And it took a couple of years to where the technique and the set-up matched up.”
Still, Mickelson has had his share of putting problems of late, ranking 116th in strokes gained this year.
Ernie Els, 49, has also gone through the putting gauntlet, going from the game’s best to a player who looked lost and experimented with a number of methods. Three years ago, he took a 9 on the first hole of the Masters, having six-putted the green.
And this is a player who won a U.S. Open on the fast-paced greens of Oakmont, four major championships total and more than 60 tournaments worldwide.
“I went through a wobble in my head,” Els said. “Right now, I’m good. I put more loft on my putter, and I’m putting as good as I did in my prime. I think there’s something that just goes on in your head. You play the game that long, you listen to other people, and stuff creeps into your head. There are so many different ways of putting.
“In certain circumstances, yes. Jack Nicklaus said he never went through any of that. Then there’s Johnny Miller, and he basically left the game because of it. You get a lot of players who never find it again.”
As for Woods, Els said: “I watch him, and it looks as pure as ever. I think what happens is you start reading the greens a little differently. His reads might not be as good. When I look at him, it looks as good as it did back in the day. He had that [issue] with his chipping [in 2015], and that was because of bad mechanics — too much lean in the shaft, so he couldn’t get his hands to the ball, couldn’t find the bottom of the swing. But his putting looks fine.”
Last year, Greg Chalmers, 45, led the PGA Tour in strokes-gained putting — but is the only player to do so in his 40s in the past 10 years.
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FOR WOODS TO CONTEND AT THE MASTERS, he does not have to be the best putter in the field, nor even necessarily in the top five. Augusta’s greens are difficult for everyone, and his experience on the course over the years offers him an advantage.
In statistics kept by Augusta National, Woods ranked outside of the top 20 in two of his four victories, and his best was tied for eighth. Only once did he average as many as 30 putts per round.
But here is the most telling statistic about Woods’ victories in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005: The first three times he led the field or was tied in greens in regulation; the last year he was second.
He never failed to hit at last 50 out of 72 greens, and during his 2001 “Tiger Slam” victory, he hit 59 out of 72 — missing just 13 greens for the week. He never had more than four three-putt greens during any of his victories.
The good news for Woods is that it is still a strong part of his game. He ranks third on the tour in greens in regulation, averaging more than 74 percent.
But once on the greens, can he give himself enough realistic looks for birdie and avoid three-putts on the occasions where he is a long way from the hole?
“I did my best when I felt comfortable and relaxed,” Crenshaw said. “If I could swing my arms and take the wrists out of it. There’s still no substitute for hitting the ball solid. To me, it was always speed. If I could hit the ball the right pace, then I’d have a good chance. You have to put those things together, and sometimes that’s hard.
“With Tiger, his stroke technically looks very good. There again, it is tough to put speed and line together. And mostly when your speed is off, you putt worse. I don’t think guys misread putts as much as they misgauge their speed.”
A year ago, in Woods’ first Masters since 2015, he three-putted twice on the final day and took 32 putts after hitting 15 of 18 greens. He missed five putts inside of 6 feet and still shot 69.
Often, you hear Woods say a standard phrase: “That is probably the worst I could have shot.” And it is often related to how well he struck the ball, only to struggle on the greens.
“You hear Tiger talk about his ‘feels’ all the time,” said Brandt Snedeker, 38, who is another nonbeliever when it comes to advancing age being a problem. “He feels like he releases the putter, but if you watch him, he really doesn’t do that. But it feels that way to him, and that is what he is trying to achieve. His stroke still looks good to me.”