Something amiss for Tiger in defeat
Nick Watney was off to the side of the green, studying his yardage book, trying to decide what he should hit off the tee on the first playoff hole.
He was one-up at the time and safely in for par, meaning his opponent needed to win the hole to extend their second-round match at the Accenture Match Play championship.
And it was a five-and-a-half footer for birdie — straightforward, but not an absolute certainty on the perplexing greens at Dove Mountain.
But Watney was sure he’d be going to extra holes because the man standing over the putt was Tiger Woods, and everyone knows he doesn’t miss big putts on the big stage.
"No question I thought he was going to make it," Watney said.
"And I think everybody thought he was going to make it, to be honest. The old adage is expect your opponent to make it, and when it’s Tiger Woods, you really expect him to make it."
But he was remembering the old Tiger; the legend of yesteryear.
This new incarnation, so unsure of himself on the greens two Sundays ago at Pebble Beach and for two days in the Tucson desert, blocked the putt so badly it didn’t even touch the hole.
The galleries, ready to roar, instead gasped as if they’d seen something horrible.
And who’s to say they hadn’t?
Even for the great ones — or especially for the great ones — golf becomes a depressing endeavor when putts won’t fall.
Ben Hogan became a statue over putts in the end, afraid to pull back the blade. Johnny Miller was forced to the broadcast booth when he realized that no matter how close he hit it to the flag, it wasn’t close enough.
Woods is nowhere near that far down the road, but it’s indisputable that the greatest clutch putter the world has known misses more than he makes these days.
On Thursday, he missed eight putts from inside 15 feet. Five from inside 10 feet. Two from five feet.
"We don’t see him miss putts like that very often," Watney said, "and there were a few of them."
"I don’t think that this will be a day that either of us will look back on as far as putting goes."
Woods afterward spoke about the mechanics of putting, how he was shutting the blade on his backstroke which meant he couldn’t release the toe or he’d miss putts to the left, so he tried to hold on to compensate.
"I was fighting the blocks all day with my putter," he bemoaned.
"I hit the ball well all day today. Unfortunately, I just did not make enough putts to extend the match."
This is his standard fallback position when there are bigger picture questions begging for answers.
Baffle his questioners with the minutae of mechanics.
But what does it all mean, Tiger?
Maybe not much?
Maybe it’s just that he doesn’t like this course — and he’s not alone in that — and wants to get back to the comfort of Florida, where next week he tees it up at the Honda Classic?
Maybe being back on Bermuda greens is the elixir?
But it’s true, too, that he once won wherever he went, whether he liked the grasses or not.
Woods was once a monster in match play. He’d won 31 of his first 37 matches in this tournament, and was crowned champion three times.
But since 2008, he hasn’t progressed beyond the second round. His two wins have come against heavy underdogs in Brendan Jones and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. The losses have been to Tim Clark, Thomas Bjorn and, now, Watney.
Standing on the outside, looking in, Woods seems a long way away from finding the champion he used to be.
Watney, though, doesn’t agree.
Maybe it’s because he, like Phil Mickelson after trouncing Woods at Pebble Beach, is a winner who can afford to be gracious.
But he thinks "it’s still in there."
"He can do things with a golf ball that not a lot of people can," he said.
"I think he’ll be just fine.”
But maybe there’s an element of hope in that analysis. Watney acknowledges he’s a big fan of Woods.
"That chip on the last hole, I would’ve loved to have made it," Watney said.
"I’ve hit that shot a thousand times, you know, just like, ‘This is to beat Tiger.’"
It’s telling that he missed the chip, but still beat Tiger.