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Tiger's play vindicates Couples' faith

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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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MELBOURNE, Australia

If it didn’t sting enough that he failed to win the Presidents Cup in his own country, or that his five fellow Aussies won only seven of their 24 matches, Greg Norman had Tiger Woods rubbing salt into his wounds.

“I’m thankful that Freddie (Couples) believed in me to be a part of this team,” Woods said after the US upset Norman’s Internationals 19-15 on Sunday.

“Greg probably is not happy about it after I closed out the Cup today.”

WHEN TIGER GOT HIS GROOVE BACK

The comeback may have begun in Australia, where Woods clinched the Presidents Cup in November. Relive the best shots.

Norman, of course, had said that he wouldn’t have used one of the two captain’s picks on golf’s deposed No. 1 if he were the US captain.

He also opined that Woods would never win another major.

The past two weeks in Australia have shown that the Shark was wrong on one count, and may be wrong on the other, too.

Despite heavy criticism, Couples kept faith with Woods, whom he calls “the best player forever”, and he repaid him with a comprehensive 4 and 3 victory over one of Norman’s captain’s picks, Aaron Baddeley, in Sunday’s singles at Royal Melbourne.

For the second straight Presidents Cup, it was Woods who secured the winning point.

“It’s not like Badds played badly,” said Woods‘ caddie, Joe LaCava, “My guy made five birdies through 11 holes in pretty tough conditions with some pretty tough pins.”

Baddeley -- who combined with Norman’s other pick, Robert Allenby, to go a dreadful 1-7-1 -- bemoaned later that Woods “didn’t miss a putt inside 20 feet.”

That was an exaggeration, but only a slight one.

Woods had been hitting the ball as well as he has since teaming up with new swing coach, Sean Foley, in August of last year. He certainly played better this week than his 2-3 record at Royal Melbourne indicated.

He didn’t get the best out of his partners, Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson, but the real problem was that Woods’ putter was cold. That is, until Sunday, when he got a tip from Stricker, whom Woods thinks of as the best putter he‘s ever seen.

“Whatever he says about putting, I’m going to listen,” he said.

On Stricker’s advice, Woods changed his ball position and concentrated on shutting the blade of the putter as he stroked the ball.

“It felt good and all of a sudden I got into my natural kind of body position and I wasn’t dragging the blade anymore, I wasn’t over-releasing the blade, just right on line,” he said.

It’s not quite the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle -- he still has to prove that, mentally, he can regain what’s been lost -- but it’s another encouraging sign that Woods is as close as he’s been to ending his two-year winless drought.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he’s hitting a lot of good golf shots,” said LaCava, who was Couples’ caddie for years.

But, is he back?

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” LaCava said.

“But is he playing well and is he hitting it solid? Of course.

“I think he’s excited. He’s seeing good shots and he’s hitting it right where he’s looking.

“And he’s got that little stinger back.”

For those who have watched Woods closely over the years, the reappearance of the “stinger” -- a low-trajectory, trustworthy shot that was prevalent during the early part of his career -- is a sign that he is regaining control of the golf ball again.

LaCava’s only concern is that just as Woods is building, he’s going to shut it down again for the holidays after next week’s Chevron Challenge, outside of Los Angeles.

“That’s the bad thing,” he said.

“I wish we were at the meat of the schedule right now. I wish we were just getting going. I wish it was February right now.”

LaCava also said that Woods was back to practicing hard, six to eight hours a day leading up to last week’s Australian Open, where Woods had the lead through two rounds but finished third.

And that’s another sign that Woods may have turned the corner. His former coach, Hank Haney, often bemoaned that Woods didn’t work as hard at his game during their last few years together.

Woods himself seems optimistic.

“This is the way I’ve been hitting it at home,” he said.

“I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made with Sean and it’s finally paying off under pressure.”

As for Couples, he was more interested in Woods getting back to his best than vindication for himself.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt vindicated in golf in 30 years,” he said, “But I feel like I know what I’m doing.”

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, Greg Norman

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