Tiger’s biggest obstacle to catching Nicklaus is putting
It was nice to see a Woods holding the trophy again Sunday. Cheyenne Woods, a junior at Wake Forest, won the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s golf championship by seven shots, firing a bogey-free 68 in the final round.
Just like Uncle Tiger used to do it.
“My niece, Cheyenne, just won the ACC golf title by 7 shots! That’s awesome, I’m so proud of her,” Tiger tweeted.
Meanwhile, it’s been 586 days – more than 1 1/2 years – since Cheyenne’s famous uncle held a trophy, not counting the ones he’s moved to his new digs in Jupiter Island, Fla.
And it’s been nearly three years since he limped his way to that epic U.S. Open victory on one leg at Torrey Pines. That was 11 majors, one knee surgery, one divorce and one swing coach ago.
Woods is going to win again, of that much we’re certain. He showed flashes of Tiger 1.0 at the Masters, particularly the hooking 3-wood that chased up onto the eighth green in the final round, setting up an eagle putt that shook the pines, led to a front-nine 31 and put him in the mix.
But the era of eight-win seasons, eight-shot victories and 8-foot gimme putts is over. At age 35, with a surgically repaired knee, a ton of personal baggage and, most important, a tentativeness that has crept into his putting stroke, Woods is on the decline.
What once seemed a given – Woods surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships – is looking less and less like a sure thing.
History will show that the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson moment occurred when relative lightweight Y.E. Yang punctured Woods’ aura of Sunday invincibility at the 2009 PGA Championship.
Since then, Woods has been just another guy in the majors. He contended in two Masters and a U.S. Open, but the bottom line is he didn’t win them. He is still stuck on 14 majors – not a bad place to be stuck – but each opportunity that slips away makes Mount Nicklaus that much harder to climb.
Woods’ thrice-overhauled swing is a favorite topic of the television analysts, but it’s obvious he’s making progress and he struck the ball well enough to win the Masters.
It’s the putter that is holding him back. For a dozen years, Woods was maybe the best clutch putter the game had ever seen.
No one can putt like that forever. Of the game’s best players, only Nicklaus remained a great putter past his physical prime. Is Tiger’s time up? Tellingly, he has switched from the Scotty Cameron with which he won 71 tournaments to a Nike Method. That bespeaks a lack of confidence.
What happened at Augusta National two weeks ago, even given Woods’ long winless drought, was eye-opening if not shocking. In the old days, if he’d shot 31 on the front nine Sunday and was tied for the lead with the back nine to play, it was over.
But Woods managed only a pedestrian 36 coming in. He three-putted on No. 12, inexplicably missing a 2-footer for par.
Tiger missing from 2 feet with a major on the line? It was the equivalent of Michael Jordan missing a layup in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Woods hit a great shot on the par-5 15th to set up a 6-footer for eagle, the kind of pressure putt he once rammed into the back of the cup. This time, he tried to coax it in with a tentative stroke and missed. On the par-3 16th he played too much break on a 10-foot birdie putt and missed again.
Of all the obstacles he will have to overcome to catch Nicklaus – an aging body, a crop of talented young kids, a closing window of opportunity – it is the putter that ultimately will determine whether he is successful.
Asked before the Masters if we’d seen the best of Tiger Woods, he immediately and emphatically answered, “No.”
Whether he is right is immaterial. The question that matters is whether he can win five more majors. Who would take that bet now? Not me.