2009 Masters: Woods and Nicklaus: Kings of clutch

Augusta, Ga. | When last seen before the Masters, Tiger Woods was somehow making yet another birdie putt to win on the 18th green at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

That 16-foot success just before dark, the kind that has become expected from him, still was reverberating in the golf world when he arrived here.

Mindful that one can more clearly see the present than through the 30-year fog of history, Golfweek sought perspective and asked more than 10 major champions here one primary question: Who is the best clutch, must-make putter in golf history?

The common denominator is that everyone queried mentioned two players – Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Open-ended questions tend to draw a wider range of opinions. But this exercise didn’t turn up multiple options down to G. This compelling talking point was about 1A and 1B.

It also was about the pair’s expressed secrets when standing over a putt that has to drop. And about the expanded insight of many of the game’s legends when talking about two golfers whom they hold in awe. The most common answer, coming from the likes of Ben Crenshaw, Sandy Lyle and Jerry Pate, was, “It used to be Nicklaus; now it’s Woods.”

It is to Nicklaus’ credit that, 23 years after the last of his 18 major championships and only two weeks after Woods’ freshest magic, most respondents mentioned him in the same sentence as the game’s current majordomo. Most gave the edge to Woods, but only one didn’t hesitate.

“Well, (Woods) hasn’t missed one yet,” 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said in explaining his quick pick. “I mean, he will. Or maybe he will. Who knows? But he makes that putt at Bay Hill, and everyone is impressed, but no one is surprised. Every time he has that putt on the last green, he just assumes he’s going to make it. The later in the tournament, the better he gets and the fewer putts and shots he misses.”

Nicklaus suggests Woods has a “rainbow” over his head on Bay Hill’s 18th, given his heroics there. In fact, Bay Hill has been the site for the past three times Woods has made a birdie putt on 18 to win any tournament. He also made from 24 feet last year and from 15 in 2001.

Answering our best-ever question on the condition he be excluded, Nicklaus said emphatically, “Tiger, by far.” But then he compared and explained.

“That’s where I made my living,” Nicklaus said of his own clutch putting. “I don’t know if he’s better. It’s very possible Tiger is better than I was, and it’s possible if I had greens as good as his I might have been, too. I don’t know the answer. But I’ll tell you one thing: He’s really good. The last two putts he made at the (2003) Presidents Cup were just unbelievable. Unbelievable. Every time I’ve seen him, he’s done it since.”

Nicklaus watched up close as Woods’ captain then in South Africa. On the third and final sudden-death hole in a draw against Ernie Els, Woods two-putted from 90 feet, in darkness, saving par on a 15-foot, uphill-downhill slider that broke a foot to the right. Then, Woods said he told himself, “You’ve got to make this putt. . . . I just go into my little world.”

Fan that he is, Nicklaus said then that there was “no way in the world I dreamed he’d make that putt.” He still marvels 51⁄2 years later, his high-pitched voice getting even higher when he says, “Up and over and a slider in the dark,” Nicklaus said, shaking his head. “How could you even read the green? Unbelievable.”

Greg Norman has seen enough of Woods and Nicklaus to rank them from various distances.

“From 6-7 feet in, it would be a tie,” the Shark said. “Outside of 9 feet, it would be Woods, no question.

He makes more 10-, 15-, 18-, 20-footers, all day long, at the crucial time. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s for an eagle or for the win or for a double bogey. I haven’t seen anything like that. Every top player has been a great putter inside 6 feet, but there’s been very few players that just absolutely wipe you off the face of the planet with the way he putts outside of 9 feet.”

When asked to identify history’s best pressure putter, three-time major champion Phil Mickelson picked up on the theme. “I know where you’re going with that,” he said. “You’re going to initially pick either Tiger or Jack, and that would be a pretty accurate assessment.”

But Mickelson also cited Padraig Harrington, Nick Faldo and Jim Furyk as players who get it done. And Gary Player added fellow South African Bobby Locke to the Woods-Nicklaus mix, calling it a “three-way tie.”

Charles Coody, 1971 Masters champion, is among those who watched Nicklaus seemingly make every 8-to-10-footer down the stretch of majors. He says a Tour adage from Nicklaus’ prime applies now.

“All of us had a saying that if somebody had a gun to your head and they were going to shoot you if you missed a 10-footer, Jack would be the guy you’d want to putt,” Coody said. “Tiger is comparable. You can just look at them and know in their mind they know they’re going to make it. It’s not a question to them.”

Lyle points out that even some Hall of Famers have made only one or two vital putts at the end to win. What impresses him most about Woods is that he’s done it numerous times. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 4 feet or 40 feet,” said Lyle, a double major winner.

It’s a matter of loving instead of fearing the most pressurized moment, according to Crenshaw.

“(Woods) has an unbelievable ability to calm himself and zero in concentration-wise in big moments,” the two-time Masters champion said. “He just thrives on it. Jack made so many big putts when he needed to, but I’ve never seen anything like Tiger.”

Pate, the former U.S. Open and Amateur champion, also gives the nod to Woods “because Tiger doesn’t hit it as close to the hole as often as Jack did. Tiger has proven he can still make par when his ballstriking is off.”

Ogilvy and others said it seems that Woods, perhaps even more often than Nicklaus decades ago, wills important putts into the hole. Ogilvy said, “That’s obviously not possible.” Nicklaus, though, begs to differ when discussing the duo’s mental prowess.

“That’s exactly what we do,” Nicklaus said. “I’ve got a putt of 10-12 feet and I say, ‘I’ve just got to make it, period. I’ve just got to make it.’ And most of the time, I made it. And Tiger’s the same way.”

Woods joked that he’s uncertain whether he has telekinetic powers, for they haven’t kept some of his balls out of trouble. Rather he pointed to intense focus when asked how in the world he makes all those must-make putts.

“Your concentration, your energy; everything comes down to one moment,” Woods said. “It’s been

a crescendo. For our sport, it takes four days to get to that moment.

“For some reason, putts have gone in.”

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