Hate to be Rude: Tiger’s Open key? Putting

Tiger Woods during the 2005 British Open at St. Andrews.

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During a telephone conversation the other day with instructor Hank Haney, he pointed out that his former prized pupil, Tiger Woods, three-putted four times on Pebble Beach’s small but bumpy greens at the U.S. Open.

“Same old story,” Haney said. “He’s going to have to putt better. You can’t have four three-putts. And he’s going to St. Andrews, where the greens are big.

“He hasn’t putted well in a major championship for a while. That’s the issue. It’s so skewed with the public. Everybody looks at his golf swing.”

Hey, he quit the job. Not the point of view.

Putting problems continued for Woods last week at the AT&T National. He came away feeling good about his driving for a change and frustrated with his work on the greens.

He led the event in driving distance and said he was so comfortable on the tee that he felt like hitting driver on every hole for the first time in a long time. On the flip side, he had 120 putts for the week, an average of 30 a round.

Bottom line, Woods has failed to put things all together in his six starts this year. One exception was his 66 in the third round of the U.S. Open. But then he bogeyed six of the first 12 holes of the final round, something we didn’t see before a sex scandal led to major changes in his life and his game.

The AT&T represented just the 10th time Woods has failed to record at least one under-par round when playing 72 holes on the PGA Tour. It was the first time he has done so in 11 years in a Tour non-major.

Woods will have to find form fast entering the British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews. He won the last two Opens there by a combined 13 strokes. The difference is that he carried major momentum into those starts. He won five times in 2000 prior to the British Open and three times beforehand in 2005. Each time, the British was his second major title of the year.

Now, having made that sextuple bogey in his personal life, he goes to St. Andrews with a lot on his mind and an uncharacteristic weak putting touch.

Understandably, he hasn’t been as mentally strong as during his glorious past. Last week there were reports that he will pay a nine-figure divorce settlement. Woods’ golf hasn’t just been impacted by what has happened since Thanksgiving; it’s affecting what’s  happening now.

As for his putting, 10 years ago when he won nine tournaments, including three majors, he had one of the best putting years in history. Now he takes an iffy stroke to a place that has huge greens and demands good putting from 40 feet and 4-8 feet.

Woods shot 79-69 Monday-Tuesday at the J.P. McManus Invitational Pro-Am in Ireland, reportedly was “terse, tense and sad-eyed” when asked questions about his personal turmoil and said he was returning home to see his kids instead of going to St. Andrews for an early tuneup.

That discomfort probably was just a prelude. If he thought the questioning was tough at a charity event in a remote part of Ireland, he probably needs to brace for more from the famously inquisitive British tabloids at St. Andrews.

Sounds like Woods had a bit of a boys trip to Adare Manor in Ireland, however brief.  Longtime close buddies Jerry Chang and Byron Bell were among the amateurs in the McManus pro-am.

The event featured numerous top-ranked professionals and an eclectic stew of amateurs. PGA Tour boss Tim Finchem played with Jean Van de Velde and former Tour deputy commissioner Tim Smith. Ian Poulter played with actor Hugh Grant and Michael “Lord of the Dance” Flatley. Also participating were Herb Kohler and actors Samuel L. Jackson and Aidan Quinn, who played Harry Vardon in the movie “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.”

Michelle Wie’s instructor, David Leadbetter, recently said, “I don’t think you’ll see her play past 30.”

I find the notion surprising and a bit disturbing. Wie, a part-time player at 20, is loaded with rare talent. And I’ve never been a fan of rare talent that isn’t milked for all it’s worth.

Retire before 30? Where’s the passion?

Didn’t people used to retire at 65?

Even Woods, with all that he’s going through, said last month that he doesn’t see his competitive candle burning out for years. “I’ve always loved to practice. And I can’t ever see that ever changing,” Woods said then.

But then, everyone’s different. And if you haven’t noticed, female superstars tend to hang up their spikes decades before their male counterparts.

Here are a couple of guys not on the usual suspects’ list I expect to see on the leaderboard at St. Andrews, at least for a while:

Sean O’Hair. He has four top-12 finishes in his past five starts, including three straight.

Ricky Barnes. He has finished in the top 27 in his past five starts, including T-7 at Colonial, T-3 at Memorial and T-5 at the Travelers.

As for picking a winner, that’s a difficult task entering an Open at St. Andrews for the first time since 1995. This one’s wide open.

Americans have won 11 of the past 15 British Opens. But the hunch is the trend won’t continue this year.

Why?

The British are coming, and nobody faster than Justin Rose. Woods is in a funk. Phil Mickelson hasn’t played well in that tournament, save for one year. Jim Furyk hasn’t fared better than 41st at St. Andrews. Steve Stricker hasn’t contended in three starts since returning from injury in late May. Anthony Kim is out injured. Davis Love is 46, not 26 or 36. And the kids haven’t dipped their toes in enough major-championship water.

The PGA Tour Player Advisory Council soon will vote on a system in which top players would have to play in one of five or so weak-field events each year. It’s a good idea that will help the Tour in general and sponsors specifically. It’s possible the plan would go into effect next year.

“We want to go in in the next cycle of getting through this economic patch with our sponsors being very positive and upbeat,”  Finchem said last week. “Everybody seems to refer to this as a Tiger and Phil (Mickelson) issue; it’s really not. It’s really about having a representative number of top players week in and week out. It’s hard to do because we have a lot of tournaments over a lot of weeks.”

It is hard. One tournament’s gain very well may be another tournament’s loss. Let straight shooter Furyk explain why.

“You can only play in so many events,” the man with the flying right elbow said. “If I go and play in one of those other events that maybe is on the list, I’m not adding events to my schedule. So if I do that, I’m taking away from another event.”

Last September at the BMW Championship, Finchem said the Tour has reduced costs in “25 different areas” and was in “good shape financially.”

He added, “We’re not in a position to lop off employees like some companies do. . . . We’ve taken on a lot of projects in the last 10 years that require people to support those projects. We have a burgeoning new media area. We feel like we’re lean and mean on the employee side already. We’ve got great people that work really hard. . . . So we’ve tried to save money in other areas.”

That was then. This is now.

In a cost-cutting measure, the Tour has eliminated the position of longtime director of information Dave Lancer. The Tour’s amiable Shell Answer Man for all things statistical, Lancer cleans out his desk in mid-July after 26 years. At the Tour longer than only a few current employees, Lancer figures he has written about 9,000 bulleted items since he started writing Tour notes in 1997.

From this particular desk, the move not only seems contradictory based on Finchem’s words, it smacks of a triple bogey. They’re losing the reliable guy people in the news media leaned on for information and creative and historical stats.

For 26 years.


Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.

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