Woods finds his putting mojo

2013-03-16 00:00

AS the rumours gather force that Tiger Woods is about to remarry the mother of his children, the man himself produced an impressive display of golf to win his 17th World Golf Championship event.

Whether the impending nuptials have elicited an inner peace that has eluded him ever since Elin took a three iron to his face or a lesson from Steve Stricker on a practice green removed the worms of doubt from his mind, Woods certainly looks to have recovered his putting mojo.

In recent years, it has been Woods’s putting that has derailed him more than his wayward driver. In his glory years, it was his power off the tee and his magical putting that distanced him from his fellow professionals. While he is still a very long hitter when his driver is behaving itself, several other golfers are longer and many are straighter.

The intimidation factor that unhinged his opposition a decade ago is no longer a problem for the new generation of golfers, and a five-year weakness in his putting has led some of them to think that Woods is a has-been and that the Nicklaus record of 18 Major titles is now out of his reach.

I wonder how many still hold to these views after watching Woods destroy a strong field at the Doral Country Club last week to win his second title of the year?

For all the convincing golf he played last week, the received wisdom is that if Woods is to challenge the Nicklaus record, the forthcoming Masters in early April has become a must-win.

The argument is that a win at Augusta, where he has had so many of his Major victories, will give him renewed confidence both in his game and in his belief that he can topple Nicklaus’s record. It might even lead to another Major in 2013, but apart from Augusta, none of the remaining Majors will be played at a course where Woods has had prior success.

The U.S. Open has not been to Merion since 1981, when it was one of the shortest courses on the U.S. Open rota. It has since been stretched to 6 900 yards, but with the modern balls and clubs, no self-respecting professional will find it long.

In other words, the big hitters will not be at an advantage. This will increase the number of players with the potential to win and thus reduce the chances of Tiger adding to his tally of Majors. What will be interesting to see is which clubs players use from the plaque in the 18th fairway, where Ben Hogan hit his famous 1-iron shot to win in 1950. My guess is that plaque will be seldom seen with the field driving well past it.

The Open will be held at Muirfield where Ernie Els is both the defending and returning champion. The course has been considerably lengthened since Ernie’s win in 2002, which will make it tough for the shorter hitters.

Muirfield is unique among Open courses in that it consists of two concentric loops, which means that very rarely are shots played into the same wind direction. Unlike the Blue Monster at Doral, where golfers could hit it anywhere off the tee and still have a shot at the green, the rough at Muirfield will punish wayward drives.

During the last Open at Muirfield, when Woods arrived with the grand slam in his sights after winning the Masters and U.S. Open, he entered the third round in contention only to be blown away in a storm. He shot 81, his highest score as a pro, but it should be remembered that if he had been more fortunate with the weather and produced the par round that Els scored in calmer conditions, he would have won that Open by three strokes. So do not rule out a Woods win at Muirfield.

The PGA will be held at Oak Hill Country Club. The last time it was held there, Woods scored 18 over par, his worst showing in a Major up to that point. The course was a brute then and is likely to be set up in a similar way this year, so it may be the course least likely of the four to see a Woods victory in 2013.

So this Masters is said to hold the key to Tiger’s confidence and future successes. The trouble for him is a certain Rory McIlroy, who finished the WGC event in spectacular fashion. Rival club manufacturers can now put away their advertising slogans suggesting that “if the world’s best golfer cannot play with Nike clubs, how can you expect to do so?”

Although he is deservedly the world’s number one, McIlroy is a streaky golfer. At his best he is virtually unbeatable, but he has yet to learn how to win while not on song.

Augusta clearly suits his style of play, so Woods’s chance of winning there may well depend on whether McIlroy arrives there in a confident frame of mind.

This time last year most commentators were looking forward to a year-long duel between Woods and McIlroy at all the big tournaments. In the end, nothing of a sort materialised as Woods fell away badly and McIlroy only came to light in the final Major of the year.

This year, however, it all feels rather different. It is the eighth time in his career that Woods has won at least two PGA Tour events before the Masters. In six of the previous seven such years, he went on to win a Major. It may be that only McIlroy can stop Woods at the Masters, but he will have to show to himself that he is close to his best in all four rounds at the one remaining tournament he has before Augusta.

As with last year, an enticing prospect is in sight, but maybe this time the stars will be properly aligned.

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