Rude: Tiger needs Sultan of Sunday swagger

Tiger Woods shot a 3-over 75 on Sunday at Pebble Beach, missing out on his first PGA Tour title in more than two years.

Tiger Woods shot a 3-over 75 on Sunday at Pebble Beach, missing out on his first PGA Tour title in more than two years.

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Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

• • •

Probably close to a decade ago at Byron Nelson’s tournament near Dallas, Phil Mickelson and I had a one-on-one talk about Tiger Woods’ influence on him. That was back when Woods was dominating golf in an awe-inspiring manner year after year.

At first Mickelson didn’t want to talk about Woods yet again. Then he dropped his guard and came clean about how Woods, then the world’s No. 1 player by a landslide, had motivated him.

He said he practiced more because of Woods’ success. He said that while he would never win as many tournaments as Woods in his career, he felt that if he improved enough he might be able to surpass Woods for a period of time.

“A lot of people consider him the best player in the world,” Mickelson said. “If I start beating him, what would that make me?”

What Mickelson has become is a 40-victory Hall of Famer who, despite being four months shy of age 42, seems to have plenty of winning golf left in his left-handed arsenal. The latest evidence was a 64 Sunday special and a two-stroke victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am – all with 75-shooter Woods in the same group.

Mickelson’s point years ago was he had a carrot dangling in front of him. And lately he has been eating it.

His view back then spoke to the competitive nature of elite athletes. It is prudent for them to find an edge, a goal, an incentive. Any kind, any way. Woods has been that for Mickelson. Little wonder then that Mickelson has said often during the past few years: “Tiger brings out the best golf in me.”

Before 2007, Woods had a 10-5-3 record against Mickelson when paired in the same group. Since, Lefty leads 8-3-1 head-to-head and in final rounds is 5-0 with a 19-stroke advantage.

The change speaks more about Woods’ fall than Mickelson’s rise. Woods is winless on Tour and hasn’t been the same since late 2009, when his personal life unraveled because of his own actions. That said, in the past eight years Mickelson has grown to the point he has won four major championships and broken through a mental barrier in order to take down Woods face-to-face.

Remarkably, Woods has but four top-10 finishes in 22 Tour starts since the day he hit that Isleworth fire hydrant. It would not be hyperbole to suggest the drop is one of the most remarkable developments in sports history, particularly when considering Woods had won 51 percent of his Tour starts in the previous 3 1/2 years.

At the moment, he appears close to winning again. He’s getting in contention again but has been plagued by inconsistency. He has not been able to string four good rounds together, something that for years was so automatic for him.

One day his ball-striking might be off, ostensibly because he still isn’t automatic with a swing he switched to in summer 2010. Another day, his putting springs a leak, as it did Sunday at Pebble Beach when he missed five putts inside of 5 feet.

This, of course, is the same man who for years seemed to make everything that mattered inside of 5 feet. For certain, something’s wrong with his putting. Sometimes he says he doesn’t see the lines well. Sometimes his stroke is off. Sunday he said he couldn’t get comfortable and get the putter to swing.

Whatever, he’s not the same as he was on the greens a few years ago – specifically since his life-altering trauma.

Here’s statistical evidence: Woods missed three putts from 3 feet or less Sunday. In 2007, he missed three putts of 3 feet or less all year. That’s right, he converted 466 of 469. Just as remarkable, he was 66th on Tour in that category that year. George McNeil missed only one of 834 inside of 3 feet then.

The remedy for Woods would seem to be practice. Last spring, Woods and his coach since summer 2010, Sean Foley, said the short game was neglected because so much time and effort were put into the swing overhaul.

A solution also might lie in watching old video and replicating former form. Such as from 2000, ’04 and ’09, when Woods ranked second on Tour in putting. Or from 2007 and ’08, when he finished third. Or from 2003 and ’05, when he finished in the top 10.

Woods, 36, has said he not only changed his swing under Foley’s counsel but also his chipping and putting motions for the sake of consistency. Considering his past success, those alterations appeared curious in the eyes of many.

This is not to say Woods is not making progress. He is. He’s contending again on a regular basis. It’s just that the greatest closer of all-time isn’t finishing things off.

In other words, the Sunday red shirt, so to speak, is in the closet. At least temporarily.

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