Putting is key to Woods' resurgence

By Adam BarrMarch 26, 2013, 2:30 pm

The ability to make long putts (and short ones, for that matter) is one of the strangest and most mysterious forces in all of sports. It takes obvious talents and skills, of course – touch and feel and balance and nerve and an ability to see paths through the grass. But it takes something on top of that, something harder to describe.

The young Tiger Woods had that something. Well, the young Tiger Woods had a lot of gifts. He could hit the ball farther than anyone else. He could hit his approach shots higher than anyone else.  He could hit the most imaginative shots when he was in trouble, and he could play the most relentless and sound golf when he was in the lead. As Tom Watson said at the time, “He’s the best driver, the best iron player, has the best short game and is the best competitor.”

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, videos and photos

It was that unbeatable combination that once led Colin Montgomerie, when asked if he might win the U.S. Open, to ask only half-jokingly: “Is Woods injured?”

But, even with all that, it was Woods’ putting ability – specifically his ability to make longer putts – that took him to this unprecedented place in golf history.  Jack Nicklaus, it was always said, wasn’t a great putter until he had to be a great putter. Then, he was the best. Woods was a great putter always, and an even greater putter when he had to be. In 2001, he wrote about the feeling in his instructional book, “How I Play Golf”: “Under pressure, it seemed like I never missed.”

It really was like that. Woods has annoyed some people with his visible frustration every time a long putt does not go in – but, hey, Tiger Woods expects every one of them to drop in the hole, especially when he’s feeling good. He takes it as a personal affront when the ball disobeys. (Johnny Miller summed this up Monday when he said during the final round of theArnold Palmer Invitational that Tiger “hates making bogeys more than anyone who has ever played the game.”)

And, when a tournament is on the line, he expects even more. If you listed the 50 greatest clutch putts of all time, you would almost certainly have to put four or five or six of Woods’ putts in there, maybe more. You’d have to include: the putt he made to force a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines; the birdie putt he made at the 18th to force a playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship; his 35-footer on the penultimate hole to win the 1996 U.S. Amateur; his 60-foot birdie putt that led to victory at the 2001 Players Championship – the one Gary Koch immortalized with his “better than most” call. This doesn’t even include his chip-in at Augusta.

But something happened to Woods the last three or four years.  It’s something anyone can see. It’s also in the numbers. The PGA Tour has a cool stat called “Putting Strokes Gained,” which basically breaks down every putt by distance. Take 8 feet – the average Tour player needs about 1.5 attempts to sink that putt (meaning that about half the golfers make the putt and half two-putt it). Well, if a PGA Tour golfer makes the 8-foot putt, he essentially gains a half-stroke on the field, and if he misses he loses a half-stroke to the field. That simple.

From 2004 to 2008, Tiger Woods only once finished out of the top 10 in putting strokes gained – he was 22nd in 2006, which isn’t too bad. The other years: second, ninth, third, third and second. Every single year, he was winning on the greens.

The last three years? He finished 109th in 2010, 45th in 2011 and 38th in 2012.

Why? Everybody always has opinions about what drives and stalls Tiger Woods. Some said he had lost his mental edge and confidence after going through the tabloid scandal. Some said that his swing was so messed up that he didn’t have time to work on his putting. Some said it was age. Some said it involved some injuries. Some said that every golfer, no matter how good, has only so many long putts in his quiver, and maybe Woods simply used his up. At different points, I believed each of these theories.

But if there’s one thing we know about Tiger Woods it is that we don’t know very much about Tiger Woods. He wants it that way. So nobody really knows – maybe not even Tiger Woods himself. At times he putted well. At other times, he flailed. The only question that really mattered was this: Could he ever putt like his old self again?

Well, this year, there is something different about him … and something familiar. He’s making the long putts again. He’s burning the cup on just about every birdie and eagle chance. He’s dropping those testy par putts. He’s locked in. Again, there are theories why. He’s happier. He’s most comfortable with himself. He’s working more on his short game. He’s dating Lindsey Vonn. Again: Who knows?

In winning Arnold Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill again – eighth time he’s won, absurd; only Sam Snead at Greensboro so dominated a single tournament – Woods had two extraordinary putts that tell the story: one he made, one he didn’t.

The one he missed came on the first hole Sunday, before the rains rushed in. He was facing a 25-or-so-footer, and it was a lightning-fast putt. Other golfers were knocking that putt 9 or 10 feet past the hole because it was so ridiculously fast.

Woods, instead, calmly stepped up, hit the ball deliberately slowly, and watched as the ball trickled and trickled until it came to a stop about 10 inches short of the hole. How did he know to do that? Sure, he knows this course well – but so do other golfers. Sure, he’s a genius at reading the greens – but so are other golfers. If there’s one thing that you pick up watching golf week after week it is that these golfers are rarely fooled … but when there is something that fools one golfer, it usually fools everyone. That’s why you will hear announcers say, “Yeah, everybody’s leaving that putt short,” or “Everyone thinks that putt breaks left, but it actually moves a little to the right.” Woods broke out of the mold.

Which takes us to the 12th hole on Monday, and Woods’ coup de grace.  He was leading the field by three shots going into the hole, and then his playing partner Rickie Fowler drained a long putt to cut the margin to two shots. Woods stood over his birdie putt, a 25- to 30-footer that everyone thought broke to the left. The announcers made this point too. Nobody read the right break in that putt because, apparently, it was invisible.

Tiger Woods read the right break, drained the putt, and won the tournament. How did he see that? He’s Tiger Woods. He’s now the No. 1 player in the world again. He’s now five victories away from Snead’s all-time record of 82 PGA wins. He is now looking a whole lot like the Tiger Woods who dominated the golf world for a decade.

Will it last? That’s hard to say. Putting is a capricious act. Some weeks the putts drop. Some they don’t. Nobody made more long putts in the 1970s than the young Tom Watson. He made those putts by sheer force – he cracked his putts at the hole, utterly unafraid of the 5-footers coming back. And then, at some point, he stopped making the 5-footers coming back. And then he stopped hitting his first putt with the same kind of power and confidence. It’s a nasty cycle.

Maybe Woods went through his own nasty cycle. And maybe he pulled himself out of it. That’s hard to say. But right now, the way he’s putting, he’s the best player in the world again. The Masters, which tends to go to the supreme putter, is only two weeks away. There’s no doubt who is the favorite.

Getty Images

Winning on Kerr's mind this week and beyond

By Randall MellMarch 24, 2018, 2:11 am

Cristie Kerr moved into position Friday to do more than win the 21st LPGA title of her career.

She moved into position to claim an LPGA Hall of Fame point this week.

Yes, winning is foremost on her mind at the Kia Classic, where she took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the second round, she’s on a larger quest, too.

After turning 40 last fall, Kerr was asked what her goals are.

“The Hall of Fame is attainable, if I stick with it,” she said.

Kerr is five shots ahead of Lizette Salas (67), In-Kyung Kim (69), Hee Young Park (70) and Caroline Hedwall (70).

It’s a good time for Kerr to get on a hot streak, with the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration, next week. She has long been one of the best putters in the women’s game, but her ball-striking is impressive this week. She hit 17 greens in regulation Thursday, and she hit 16 on Friday.

“I like winning,” Kerr said. “I like challenging myself. Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older, with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, `Man, why does my hamstring hurt?’ From working around this hilly golf course.”

Kerr acknowledged Friday that her body is more vulnerable to time’s realities, but her mind isn’t.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

“The golf ball doesn't know an age,” Kerr said. “I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.”

Kerr won two weeks after her 40th birthday last fall, boosting her LPGA Hall of Fame point total to 22. She is five points short of eligibility for induction. A player earns one point for an LPGA victory and two points for a major championship title. So there’s a lot of Hall of Fame ground to gain this week and next.

It’s a long-term goal that motivates Kerr to take care of her body.

“I don't think the golf changes,” Kerr said. “I think, physically, it gets harder as you get older. Like I said, I've got tape on my hamstring. I strained it, just a little bit yesterday, walking around this golf course. It's tough as you get older, just being fresh and rested. I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.”

Getty Images

Big names chasing Kerr into the weekend at Kia Classic

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr shot an 8-under 64 on Friday in the Kia Classic to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend.

The 40-year-old Kerr had eight birdies in her second straight bogey-free round to reach 13-under 131 at rain-softened Aviara.

''I like winning. I like challenging myself,'' Kerr said. ''Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, 'Man, why does my hamstring hurt?' From working around this hilly golf course. The golf ball doesn't know an age. I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.''

She has 20 LPGA victories, winning at Aviara in 2015. She won twice last year and helped the U.S. beat Europe in her ninth Solheim Cup appearance.

''It's tough as you get older just being fresh and rested,'' Kerr said. ''I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.''

Lizette Salas, In-Kyung Kim, Hee Young Park and Caroline Hedwall were tied for second. Salas shot 67, Kim 69, and Park and Hedwall 70.

''I really like this golf course. I really like the environment,'' said Salas, the former University of Southern California player from Azusa. ''My family gets to come out. So much confidence at the beginning of the week, and definitely showed the first two days.

Jeong Eun Lee was 7 under after a 69, and defending ANA champion So Yeon Ryu had a 70 to get to 6 under.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

Ariya Jutanugarn (72), Brooke Henderson (70) and 2016 winner Lydia Ko (71) were 5 under. Shanshan Feng (68) was another stroke back, and Singapore winner Michelle Wie (72) was 1 under.

Lexi Thompson was 2 over after a 74, making the cut on the number in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week at Mission Hills.

Kerr opened with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-3 11th, added birdies on the par-4 16th, 18th and second, and ran off three in a row on the par-3 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth.

''I don't think you can fall asleep on one shot,'' Kerr said. ''It's a really good golf course. I think I play better on courses that demand the focus, so I think that's why I've played well here in the past. ... I'm trying not to put limits on myself right now. I've got some good things going on with my swing.''

She has long been one best putters and green-readers in the world.

''I can see the subtleties that a lot of people can't,'' Kerr said. ''It's a gift from God being able to do that. I've always had that, so I'm lucky.''

Laura Davies withdrew after an opening 82. The 54-year-old Davies tied for second last week in the Founders Cup in Phoenix, playing through painful left Achilles and calf problems.

Getty Images

DJ hits 489-yard drive, but it doesn't count for history

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 12:22 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Dustin Johnson is no stranger to big drives, but even for DJ this one was impressive.

Trailing in his Day 3 match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Johnson launched a drive at the par-5 12th hole that traveled 489 yards, but that number comes with an asterisk.

“He got lucky it hit the road,” smiled Kevin Kisner, who was leading the world No. 1, 3 up, at the time. “I thought he would make an eagle for sure, he only had 80 yards [to the hole]. He didn’t hit a very good putt.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Johnson’s drive, which was 139 yards past Kisner’s tee shot, is the longest recorded on the PGA Tour in the ShotLink era, surpassing Davis Love III’s drive of 476 yards in 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.

The drive will not go into the record books, however, because the Tour doesn’t count statistics from the Match Play.

It should also be noted, Kisner halved the 12th hole with a birdie and won the match, 4 and 3, to advance to the round of 16.

Getty Images

Durant leads Champions event in Mississippi

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 12:21 am

BILOXI, Miss. - Joe Durant had three straight birdies in a back-nine burst and a shot 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions' Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Durant birdied the par-4 11th and 12th and par-5 13th in the bogey-free round at breezy and rain-softened Fallen Oak. Because of the wet conditions, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.

''It just sets up nice to my eye,'' Durant said. ''It's a beautiful golf course and it's very challenging. The tee shots seem to set up well for me, but the greens are maybe as quick as I've ever seen them here. You really have to put the ball in the right spots. I played very nice today. With the wind swirling like it was, I'm really happy.''

He won the Chubb Classic last month in Naples, Florida, for his third victory on the 50-and-over tour.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

''Done this long enough, Friday's just one day,'' Durant said. ''Especially in a three-day tournament, you've got to go out and shoot three good numbers. Fortunate to put one on the board, but I know I have to back it up with a couple of good days because you can get passed very quickly out here.''

Mark Calcavecchia was a stroke back. He won last month in Boca Raton, Florida

''It's probably my best round I've ever had here and it was a tough day to play,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The greens are just lightning fast. They're pretty slopey greens, so very difficult to putt.''

Steve Stricker was third at 68. He took the Tucson, Arizona, event three weeks ago for his first senior victory.

''Just getting it around and managing my game I think like I always do,'' Stricker said. ''You get in the wrong position here with the greens being so fast and you're going to be in trouble. I did that a couple times today.''

Billy Mayfair, Billy Andrade and David McKenzie shot 69. Jerry Kelly, the winner of the season-opening event in Hawaii, was at 70 with Wes Short Jr., Glen Day, Gene Sauers and Jesper Parnevik.

Bernhard Langer opened with a 71, and two-time defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez had a 72.

Vijay Singh, coming off his first senior victory two weeks ago in Newport Beach, California, had a 73.