The putter sabotaged Woods again Sunday afternoon, and with it, his chances of stealing the Western Open from Jim Furyk. Losing a tournament that he's won three times already may not have crushed Woods' ego, but it can't have boosted his confidence with two weeks left before he tees it up at St. Andrews in the season's third major. Especially not after a three-putt on No. 17 at Pinehurst two weeks ago doomed him to a second-place finish behind Michael Campbell at the U.S. Open.
'Everything,' he said. 'Everything is key at the British Open. You have to drive it well and position your irons well.'
More telling, though, was the 90 minutes Woods spent on the practice green Thursday evening after taking 29 putts en route to an opening-round 73 that left him dangling perilously close to the cut line.
Talk about paying immediate dividends: Woods vaulted back into the tournament Friday and Saturday, with nary a three-putt in either round. He began the final day five shots behind Furyk, but a birdie-birdie-eagle binge on Nos. 9-11 pushed him to 13-under and into the unlikely co-leader's spot for all of 10 minutes.
Then, Furyk rolled in a second birdie of his own at the 11th, plowed in a third straight at No. 12, right about the same time that Woods three-putted the 13th - and the tournament was effectively over.
'This year,' Woods said afterward, 'either I'm putting great or I'm struggling. Nothing in between. Either I'm rolling them in from everywhere or I'm three-putting.'
That's hardly news, but neither is it the exaggeration it might sound like. Woods has wrestled with his driver since he exploded on Southern California's loaded junior amateur circuit, and for all his awesome power, the plain fact is that he's never been precise. For all the fuss that's been raised about his wildness off the tee, the most telling numbers have always been those he's rolled up on the greens.
Last year, for example, Woods ranked ninth on the PGA Tour in distance, averaging 302 yards, but 182nd in accuracy, finding the fairway just 56 percent of the time. He offset much of that wildness by finishing second in putting average, and really limited the damage by taking just 23 three-putts all season.
Coming into the Western, though, Woods already had 20 three-putts this season. He chalked up No. 21 on Thursday, but after the lengthy practice session, appeared to have put the problem behind him. Then came Sunday. With Furyk playing in the twosome behind him and applying pressure most of the way around, Woods three-putted Nos. 6 and 13 for bogeys. That saddled him with 23 this season - as many as he had all last year.
To top it off, Woods made a third bogey by leaving a sand shot in the bunker at No. 14. That many mistakes in the final round made Woods seem more like a flinching Tiger than a crouching one. Either way, it caught Furyk off-guard.
'I would say it surprised me,' he said, 'because he's such a good player. That's one negative of being the best. Everyone expects you to be perfect. If he makes a mistake, it sticks out more than anyone else. People pay notice to it. People will mention it to him. He has to relive those moments a little more critically than everyone else, because the spotlight is on him.'
That was apparent when someone asked Woods about the number of three-putts this season versus last. He didn't even wait to hear the entire question.
'I knew that,' Woods said.
'It's speed,' he continued. 'You're not going to misread a putt by 8 feet. If anything, you're going to have poor speed. Poor speed always leads to three putts, not misreads.'
Conventional wisdom is that pro golfers are so close in the skills necessary to play the game that each week comes down to a putting contest. By spending more hours at the gym, visiting their sports psychologists religiously and applying every bit of technology that club and ball manufacturers have developed in recent years, the pack chasing Woods have neutralized his distance advantage.
None of them are his equal yet in the mental-toughness department. But they know that Woods can't will the ball into the hole every time he needs to - and certainly not the way it seemed he could once. Spraying tee shots all around the grounds has made Woods seem beatable. But the golfers trying to do just that know Woods is never more vulnerable than when he's wrestling with a balky putter.
'He's human,' Furyk said a second time. 'Sometimes it doesn't seem that way, but he's human.'
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