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Woods' 54-hole domination has disappeared

Tiger Woods
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For two years and counting the golf world has dissected the anatomy of a slump ad nauseam, swing types questioning the form and function of a new action, sports psychologist citing a loss of confidence and gym rats lamenting a body that has spent more time in an MRI machine than the Boston Celtics backcourt.

Still others pointed to distractions large and small, while more than one PGA Tour frat brother attributed Tiger Woods’ extended victory schneid to a balky putter that no longer rolled in clutch 5-footers with ease.

This much is certain: whatever the virus, the primary symptom has become increasingly clear over the last 24 months. The man who used to own Sundays has now become something of a spectator in red.

Complete coverage: Tiger Woods | AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am

On this history is clear. Prior to the 2009 PGA Championship Woods was a perfect 14-for-14 with at least a share of the 54-hole lead in a major championship, and he is currently 55-for-64 with a three-lap advantage in worldwide starts in his career.

“Being a front runner, everyone's kind of chasing you,” Woods said on Tuesday at Pebble Beach where he will make his 2012 Tour debut. “You're in a position where if you do make a few mistakes, it's all right because obviously you have shots to play with.

“Throughout my career, I've shot some pretty good rounds when I've had the lead.  Not too often I've gone over par on the final round when I've had the lead.”

Call it the Mariano Rivera complex, a cold-blooded closer who relishes the role of front-runner and a line-of-sight view of the checkered flag. Yet through two winless seasons, that signature Sunday move has been largely AWOL.

The generic litmus test for Woods’ Sunday stranglehold is final-round scoring average. He’s ranked outside the top 10 on Tour in this category just five times since 1997 – and even those anomalies dovetail with the well-documented ebb and flow of swing changes in 1999, 2004 and 2010 – and averaged higher than 70 on only five occasions.

More detailed evidence of Woods’ final-round fortunes can be found in a contrived statistic called top-5 final round performance which the Tour began recording in 2001 and measures the percent of time a player’s finishing position improved or remained unchanged when entering the final lap inside the top 5.

This statistic, in a Billy Beane “Moneyball” sort of way, slices through the speculation and misplaced generalities of other measurements like putts per round and fairways hit and offers a glimpse into how dominant Woods was when he was able to nose ahead of the crowd.

In Woods’ eight complete seasons since 2001 he was perfect in “top 5 performance” four times, including ’07 when he was 10-for-10 on Sunday. And on the four occasions when he wasn’t batting 1.000, his performance was marred by no more than a single Sunday slip.

In short, red shirts were not his only Sunday tradition. By contrast, the post-2009 world has been anything but predictable.

Since the ’09 BMW Championship, his last Tour victory, Woods’ Sunday scoring has jumped to 71.40 and 69.67 in 2010 and ’11, respectively. Similarly, on the eight occasions he has started the final round within seven strokes of the lead since the ’09 BMW his final-round average is 70.28.

His Sunday spoils came into particular focus earlier this month when he entered the final turn tied with someone named Robert Rock at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Woods signed for a 72 and a tie for third, Rock was two strokes better and took his second European Tour title.

Still, Woods considered his Abu Dhabi finish a triumph of progress considering his recent Sunday struggles.

“I’m excited that my bad ballstriking day was on Sunday and it wasn’t that bad,” he told Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio on Tuesday. “That’s where I had been in the past where I would hit these foul balls and have to go find them. I didn’t hit a foul ball all week. My start lines are so much tighter.”

Part of Woods’ optimism is rooted in his victory at December’s Chevron World Challenge, where he began the final round a shot behind Zach Johnson, one-putted the final two greens and hoisted his first individual trophy, unofficial or otherwise, in 24 months.

Chevron Sunday was quintessential Woods – cool, clinical and the best sign to date that what was once old could be new.

“Personally, I've always been excited about being in that position (54-hole lead),” Woods said. “I know I've played well to get there, so just trying to do the same things I did to get there, and hopefully it will be enough.”

Whatever piece of the puzzle the pundits say has been missing for two years, it stands to reason that 54-hole aura and the Sunday showcases that defined him for over a decade will now determine how his career proceeds.

Watch first- and second-round coverage of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Thursday and Friday on Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET.