MARANA, Ariz. – Eliminated in the WGC Accenture Match Play second round, Tiger Woods left here Thursday afternoon having hit more left-handed shots than Phil Mickelson.
Yes, Mickelson is absent, on a family vacation.
Which makes for this pertinent segue. There was something else on vacation Thursday: Woods’ putting stroke. And we can safely assume the Mickelsons were having more fun.
The former World No. 1 played beautifully from tee to green, unlike the day before. But he was unable to solve the undulating Ritz-Carlton Golf Club greens for the second consecutive round, this time losing 1 down to Nick Watney.
Woods might have done better if asked to explain the string theory and basics of particle physics.
The greens here on the Jack Nicklaus design are wild and hilly. They are tricky because of all the slopes and grain and valley effect. Figuring out a putt can be like taking a science exam.
Woods did not pass.
He missed seven putts inside of 15 feet, all but one for birdies. Five of the misses were in the range of 5-10 feet. The longest of the three birdie putts he made was 6 feet, on a 335-yard driveable par 4; the two others were tap-ins on par 5s. His longest make was on a 14 1/2-foot par save at the fifth.
“They’re hard to read,” he said for the second day.
They seemed to baffle him from start to painful finish. After a terrific drive and 188-yard approach shot at the 480-yard 18th, he missed an uphill 5 1/2-foot birdie putt that would have won the hole and extended the match.
On top of all those wavy obstacles, his stroke was off. He continually missed putts to the right. His diagnosis appeared spot on, but he couldn’t fix the problem.
“I was fighting the blocks all day with my putter,” said Woods, a three-time winner of this event, the last in 2008 before the move to the Ritz-Carlton. “The putter is going back shut, and either I let it go and (the ball) goes left or I block it to the right.”
The crucial one at 18 merely was the last in a series of shut-faced blocks.
“I need to feel like the toe of my putter swings a lot, has a lot of movement to it,” he said. “It has none right now. … I need to feel the release of my stroke.”
Hence, it’s back to the laboratory before playing the next two weeks, at the Honda Classic and WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral.
“I need to go back and work on it,” he said.
Yes, he does.
During some of his glory years, Woods was considered by many to be perhaps the best putter in golf. He ranked second on the PGA Tour in putting in 2000, ’04 and ’09, third in 2007 and ’08 and elsewhere in the top 10 in 2003 and ’05.
But these days he’s in and out of a funk on the greens, an aberration from his terminator days. He was in contention two weeks ago at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am – that is, until he missed five putts inside of 5 feet on Sunday. He also putted miserably in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship final round last month after sharing the 54-hole lead.
Let’s say he’s not quite Masters-ready. But he has time. In fact, to hear him, he figures he can smooth the stroke out by the first round of Honda on Thursday.
“I should be able to fix it in about a day,” Woods said.
Whether he does is another matter. Golf gives no guarantees.
The putter is the shortest club in the bag. It also is the sharpest, cutting into a golfer’s heart when things aren’t right.
That’s where Woods is now. He got a putting tip from Steve Stricker in November at the Presidents Cup, and the alteration seemed to work. Stricker also gave him advice on the green here Tuesday.
This time, nothing worked.
The same couldn’t be said for Woods’ long game in a Thursday round in which he made three birdies, one bogey and a double bogey. He struck the ball well, hitting 14 greens in regulation and nine of 14 fairways.
“I didn’t miss a single shot coming in,” he said. “That was fun to hit the ball that well.”
Only one drive cost him. His drive into a left fairway bunker at the 493-yard 10th set off a messy chain reaction that led to double bogey. A mighty lash sent his second shot into desert right, next to a cactus and behind a rock. Forced to play a left-handed shot for the second day in a row because of the cactus, he chopped his third just a few yards into rough and pitched 20 feet by.
The significance is that Watney went 1 up and ahead to stay. Watney made a 6-footer to halve Woods’ two-putt birdie at the par-5 11th and then went 2 up with a 17-foot birdie putt at 12.
Woods never overcame that. He did have his chances but missed birdie putts of 10 feet at 13, 7 feet at 14 and the one at the last.
“I feel a bit fortunate,” said Watney, who didn’t putt well himself and admitted being confused reading greens. “We don’t see him miss putts like that very often. And there were a few of them.”
That much we have established.