Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Tiger not getting the rub of the green

Tiger Woods waits for his birdie putt on the 14th green during the final round of The Barclays on August 30, 2009 at Liberty National in Jersey City, New Jersey
Tiger Woods waits for his birdie putt on the 14th green during the final round of The Barclays on August 30, 2009 at Liberty National in Jersey City, New Jersey

Many a true word is said in jest. Heath Slocum certainly chose an interesting one to describe the seven-foot putt Tiger Woods missed on the final green at Liberty National.

“He usually makes those, yeah,” smiled the newly crowned Barclays champion, adding that Tiger's effort had been “ho-hum for him”.

Well, a fortnight after YE Yang had made Woods look decidedly “ho-hum” on the final day of the US PGA, Slocum (35) and another rank outsider — despite two previous wins on Tour — did it again on Sunday.

Those amusing newspaper headlines after Hazeltine were spot on when they proclaimed “The End of an Aura” for Woods.

Tiger made plain his frustration about the many double-breaks he faced on Liberty National's perplexing greens and rarely has he asked caddie Steve Williams to help read so many putts; that's like Gordon Ramsay getting one of the doormen to make the gravy.

Sunday's winner offered one fascinating insight when he spoke of his own feelings as he stood over the 21-foot putt at 18 which clinched his one-stroke victory over Woods, Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els and Steve Stricker at the first event of this year's FedEx Cup play-off.

“I just felt good over the putt. I did what I always do. I just imagined the ball going into the hole, visualised it, stepped up, made a good stroke and it went in,” he said.

Not so long ago, Woods used to see all his putts that clearly — especially on Sunday afternoon. It was his stock and trade, his greatest asset — the mere sight of Tiger's ball resting within 10, 15 or even 20 feet of the pin at the final hole used be like the offer of a last cigarette and blindfold to the vast majority of his opponents.

Father time has eroded that advantage and chipped away at Tiger's certainty. Early in 1998, I remember Mark O'Meara, who was to go on and win both The Masters and The Open that year, following Woods into the media centre at Torrey Pines for an interview before that year's Buick Invitational.

A toothy young Tiger had impressed reporters so much with his cavalier confidence when talking about making putts, they asked his friend and mentor to comment. O'Meara, then in his late 30s, simply smiled, shook his head and said that was a young golfer's prerogative, adding: “Wait until he gets to my age.”

O'Meara's point was that every important putt a player misses down the years hits the psyche like an ocean breaker, slowly wearing it down. It's nature.

Tiger made 85.3pc of his putts from 10 feet or closer over four rounds at The Barclays, which was well below his average of 90.4pc. It would be easy to attribute this to his discomfort on the greens at Liberty National, had his putting not let him down at The Masters in April or the US PGA.

There was an ironic twist in the tale on Sunday when Woods pulled his three-foot putt for par at the fourth.

The gallery was stunned when his ball horseshoed out of the cup; though on Saturday and Sunday at the US PGA, Tiger three-putted for bogey at Hazeltine's par-three fourth hole.

For all that, Woods has won five of the 13 strokeplay events he has entered since his return from knee surgery in February, finishing second in two, top 10 in five others and missing just one cut, which just happened to be The Open at Turnberry.

Slocum went to the same high school as Boo Weekley and Bubba Watson but, revealingly, never qualified for a colourful nickname, despite being the most polished and precise player of this trio.

And although this understated individual got the jump on Tiger last Sunday, nobody will be surprised if the greatest player of his or any other generation wins either The Deutsche Bank Championship or The BMW in the next fortnight and lifts The FedEx Cup and that $10m bonus in Atlanta a fortnight later.

The Tiger we saw at Liberty National played so sublimely from tee to green as he once again placed strategy ahead of raw power, one is tempted to predict a new era of excellence for Woods in terms of his overall game... made infinitely more interesting by his loss of infallibility with the putter.

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