While Hunter Mahan’s prowess with his new Ping Nome putter stole the show at last week’s Accenture Match Play Championship, come Thursday at the Honda Classic, all eyes will be on Tiger Woods’ Nike Method.
The start of the PGA Tour’s Florida swing may shed some light on the mystery involving the disappearance of Woods’ nearly robotic ability to drain any putt on any green from inside five feet — a topic still very much in vogue as Woods prepared for his first Honda start since he was a 17-year-old amateur in 1993. A post-match play Woods seemed unconcerned about the technical aspects of his putting stroke, as did several putting experts who were more interested in the golfer’s emotional approach to a part of his game that had always been on auto-pilot.
“I was not so much shocked, as intrigued,” Vision54’s Pia Nilsson, who works with LPGA Tour star Yani Tseng, told us Sunday about her reaction to Woods’ five-foot slide-by putt last Thursday that abruptly ended his chances for a fourth match play title and stunned playing partner Nick Watney. “What’s just so fascinating about it is that all of us are looking to see what’s going on on the outside and commenting about Tiger’s mechanics, but none of us — unless we’re talking to Tiger — knows what’s going on inside of his skin.”
Following his second-round ouster, Woods vowed that an easy fix was all the tour’s 175th-ranked puttist needed to regain the form that made him the second-best wielder of the flat stick (and fourth from within five feet) in 2009. He’ll have a chance to determine if his rapid remedy can hold up under competitive pressure when he takes the field at PGA National Golf Club with match play runner-up and world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, third-ranked Lee Westwood, reigning PGA champ Keegan Bradley, and Phoenix Open winner Kyle Stanley, among others.
In the meantime, Nilsson and other top instructors agreed that a minor adjustment here and there should help Woods mend his stroke. They suggested, however, that the former putting machine needed a band-aid on his psyche more than on his actual motion.
Putting guru Dave Stockton Sr. works with several touring pros but not with the golfer in question. Still, the 10-time tour winner who has become the go-to guy for players struggling with their blades was confident that what ailed Woods was “more mental” than physical.
“Putting is something that, when you try to get better at, it almost locks you up,” Stockton told us. “There’s nothing mechanically wrong [with Woods’ putting]; he’s just trying too hard.”
Stockton likened Woods’ struggles to the “Signature Approach” he and son Dave Jr. use with students who have included match play champ Mahan, McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Michelle Wie, and Matt Kuchar. After first-time pupils sign their names on pieces of paper, Stockton has them repeat the process, but with more attention to detail. Invariably, a player’s second John Hancock bears little resemblance to the first and shows a far less steady hand.
Woods, whom “we’ve all seen make millions of miles of putts” by setting up, looking at it, and letting it go, said Stockton, “is putting right now with his second signature.”
Tiger appeared anything but relaxed when he missed three putts within 10 feet on the final six holes in Thursday’s round (the five from within five feet that he botched in the Pebble Beach finale two weeks ago helped drop him to 178th on tour from that distance). If he can loosen the death grip on his short club and stop acting like he’s having a root canal, Stockton believes Woods will once again start canning those money shots.
“I’d like to see him smile once or twice,” said Stockton, who was cheering for the former No. 1 to “feel it and roll it and…putt like he used to.”
Other Tiger watchers also believed Woods’ struggles on the greens came from within. Even before the 21st-ranked golfer in the world’s unexpected departure from match play, analyst David Feherty wondered about the after-effects of Tiger’s precipitous fall from grace.
“At any time [since his sex scandal] has he been so anxious about whether or not he’s going to regain any kind of form?” Feherty asked last week during a teleconference ahead of Monday night’s season-two premier of his “Feherty” talk show on Golf Channel. “Is it possible for him to reach that level again…? Has that affected his mind, has his head been full of slamming doors like a normal person’s head would be?”
Brian Mogg, who coached Y.E. Yang to his upset victory over Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship, believes the glitch in Tiger’s putting stroke required a stronger grip with his left hand that would let the club release more freely through impact. But, like his colleagues, Mogg said Woods had to get a firmer grip on his inner golfer to gain more confidence.
Woods “just needs to make more clutch pressure putts to get his mojo back and [start] feeling good about himself and his game,” Mogg said in a recent e-mail. “Putting is based on feel and emotion and once he fixes this, he will immediately make more putts.”