Golf

Putt up or shut up, Tiger

Tiger Woods took 10 more putts than British Open champion Phil Mickelson.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Gullane, Scotland

Tiger Woods doesn’t really believe he “played well” in finishing in a tie for sixth at the Open Championship.

For whatever reason — perhaps because it protects his brand and is the easiest way to deal with disappointment — he feels the urge to act like he’s “right there.”

“I'm very pleased with the way I'm playing, there's no doubt,” Woods said after shooting 74 at Muirfield on Sunday.

“I'm right there and I hit a ton of good shots this week, and the only thing that I would look back on this week is I just never got the speed (of the greens) after the first day, because it progressively got slower.”

So we are to believe the man many think of as the greatest ever is happy to finish sixth because he can’t adjust to the speed of greens in three days?

We are to believe that he’s “right there” when he’s shot 25 over on the weekends at majors since the start of 2012 (after being eight under on Thursdays and Fridays)?

I leave the Scottish shores with two enduring images of Woods’ latest failure to win No. 15 and resume his chase of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.

The first came on the very first hole of the final round. Woods had piped a long iron downwind and was perfectly positioned to deal with the deep pin.

With his playing partner, Adam Scott, looking nervous and sure to make a bogey at least and the untested Lee Westwood and Hunter Mahan in the last group, Woods had to know he’d have a good chance of winning if he just didn’t make mistakes.

He flung a short iron high into the air and watched forlornly as it failed to release.

All day players had been doing that same thing and  — because the front of the green had been watered — their approaches stopped well short.

What’s stunning is that Woods had been watching the television broadcast at his nearby rented home, yet still hit the shot that he had to know probably wouldn’t release.

His miscue left him 100 feet, from where he inevitably three-putted, missing a six-footer.

The wind was out of his sails.

He would shoot himself in the foot with another three-putt again a few holes later, but the other image that stays with me came on the eighth hole.

Woods had hit a beautiful approach to about six feet. Scott nailed a 50-footer on Woods’ same line but Woods hit the weakest of putts and missed.

There are several reasons why Woods hasn’t won a major since June 2008 but his weekend at Muirfield reinforces the idea that the most valid is that he’s no longer the putter he once was.

Years ago, I asked Peter Thomson — the Australian who’d won five claret jugs — if Woods was the best player he’d seen.

“No,” he said, “But he’s the best 20-foot putter who’s ever lived.”

But even before he backed his Escalade into that fire hydrant, Woods had shown vulnerability on the greens in the cauldron of a major.

He had chances at three majors in 2009, including most famously the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, where he lost a lead in the final round of a major for the first time, but the putts wouldn’t fall like they did earlier in his career.

On the weekend at Muirfield, Woods took 66 putts. Phil Mickelson, who won the claret jug, had 10 fewer.

In his four wins this year Woods putted fantastically, but he got to the Masters and suddenly the putter was cold, as it’s been at Augusta National for him since 2005.

At Merion, he was woeful on the greens and recorded his worst-ever finish as a professional in a US Open.

Woods’ estranged coach Hank Haney used to say that if you’d tell him how many putts Woods took, he’d tell you where he finished in a tournament.

He was usually right on the mark.

But he also bemoaned the fact that Woods didn’t practice his putting much.

Certainly his current coach Sean Foley doesn’t work on putting.

Woods’ putting coach was his dad, Earl Woods, who passed away in 2006.

Since then, he’s gone it alone.

But the time has come to bite the bullet and get someone to help him with his putting.

He has to know it was no coincidence that he won so convincingly at Doral after an impromptu lesson at Doral from Steve Stricker.

It’s clear that Woods can still roll his rock.

But not on weekends at majors.

And, for him, what else is there?

Woods needs to fix his putting and do it soon because nothing’s guaranteed in golf.

Maybe he could talk to Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer about that.

Each contended in majors into their early 40s but never won one after the age of 33 because of putting.

The history of golf, from Ben Hogan to Sam Snead, Johnny Miller to Ernie Els, is littered with men who lost their putting stroke and could never get it back.

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Adam Scott

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