ORLANDO, Fla. – The images are burned in the brain.
Memories of Tiger Woods at his best, when he looked most like a golf warrior, have a common denominator.
Woods was connected to his putter.
Has he ever looked fiercer than when he rocked back on his heels and roared to the heavens after making that long birdie putt to tie Rocco Mediate and force a playoff at the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008?
Or all those trademark uppercuts he used to throw after holing putts in his youth?
Tiger Woods Wednesday at Bay Hill, where he has won six times. (Getty Images)
Woods’ putter was like Excalibur over his best years.
While a lot is made of swing changes Woods is making with Sean Foley, Woods has shown us over the years he can win when his swing’s not quite right.
But he’s got no shot when his putting stroke’s not right.
That’s what intrigues about Woods’ return to the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week in a bid to win his seventh PGA Tour title at Bay Hill.
Woods used his new Nike Method putter again in Wednesday’s pro-am. The course seems a perfect place for the magic to return to his putting stroke. There are so many good memories for him with his putter here.
In his last two appearances at Bay Hill, Woods ended victories with dramatic tournament-winning putts.
There was the 24-foot birdie putt to beat Bryant in ’08 and the 12-foot birdie putt to beat Sean O'Hair in ’09.
Woods' triumph against O'Hair was good for what ailed him back then. It was his first taste of victory in nine months in the wake of his return from knee surgery.
The memories have to be enervating with Woods saying he’s feeling better about his putting stroke after a bout of lackluster putting the past year. He believes when his putting form returns, you can expect his entire game to begin to follow.
“The putting will come,” Woods said after Wednesday's pro-am. “The chipping will come.
“Because I’m learning a new release, that’s going to take time. But I know I can do that. I’ve done it before . . . I know from the work I’ve done it starts with the putting stroke and it works its way out. Once I get the release dialed in with the putting and the chipping and the irons, then eventually the driver just falls into place.”
When Woods said he was changing the release of his putter as part of his swing makeover with Foley, it got people’s attention. Woods’ putting stroke, after all, might have been the finest under pressure the game’s ever seen.
Notably, Woods said the release he’s working on with Foley is more a return to the release his father taught him. Earl Woods was Tiger’s putting coach until Earl’s death five years ago.
Tiger was asked Wednesday what he thought his father might have him working on as he tries to break out of his putting funk.
“It’s funny you say that,” Woods said. “I went back to all my old stuff that my dad and I used to work on. That’s when I felt that my stroke started becoming more sound, more solid. My speed became better.
“I don’t know what the dude saw in my game, but he really knew putting, and he knew my stroke. I miss him for a lot more reasons than just the putting, but as far as bouncing ideas off of him and what I was feeling and what he would say, I do miss that, certainly.”
Woods said what Foley’s teaching him doesn’t conflict with what his father taught.
“It’s exactly the same, what Foley is trying to get me to do with my full swing, and how he wants me to release it, and how I used to release my putter,” Woods said. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve gone back to my old stuff that my dad and I used to work on. It feels natural, because I’ve done it so long. I just got away from it, and now I’m going back to it.”
As athletic moves go, Woods’ slight rocking of his shoulders in his putting stroke in his prime didn’t thrill the way a Muhammad Ali combination did or Reggie Jackson corkscrew swing did, but it was one of sport’s marvels just the same. That gentle little pendulum swing could make the earth move.
If that returns, you know Woods’ confidence will follow and help every dimension of his game.
The challenge this week will come on green complexes that have changed since Woods last won here two years ago.
Palmer made considerable changes before last year’s tournament, an event Woods missed as he worked his way back from personal woes.
The course alternations aren’t enough, however, to lead Palmer to believe Woods can’t master these greens the way he did in six other victories at Bay Hill.
“I feel like Tiger has the golf game that he can come to the surface at anytime, and I think there’s certainly a possibility here,” Palmer said. “He likes this golf course, and what we’ve done. I’m just not counting him out at all.”
Ian Poulter believes Woods’ powers could return quickly with the putter.
“I think it’s a confidence thing,” Ian Poulter said. “I think as soon as he puts himself in a position of being in contention, I really mean being up there, I think it would be very easy for him to see his lines again, very quickly.
“If you start missing putts and you start missing your lines, and if everything is on top of you, you are kind of putting more pressure on yourself to putt well. I think if he puts himself in the mix, I would know where my money is going.”