Lusetich: Tiger again lacks finishing touch, loses in playoff

It’s certainly true that Zach Johnson, forever the overachiever, played some stellar iron shots down the stretch at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge on Sunday.

The feisty Johnson, who’s made an art form out of playing small-ball, almost spun an 88-yard wedge back into the hole for eagle on the par five-16th, nearly aced the par-3 17th, then after shanking an eight iron into a hazard on the last, holed out from 58 yards to register the most improbable of pars.

“I mean, I don’t know how with the last three holes those balls didn’t go in,” said Tiger Woods.

Woods, who used to be the one doing the magic tricks on Sundays, suddenly needed to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker just to send the tournament into a sudden-death playoff.

“I hit a hell of a bunker shot and then made par, and in extra holes I hit another really good bunker shot and didn’t have as good a lie the second time around and took a chance, and it came out great. To get it that close I thought was pretty good,” Woods said.

All very true; but is there not something else to the story?

Johnson didn’t win because he stuffed an iron into Sherwood Country Club’s scenic 18th and made birdie on the first playoff hole. He played a very conservative nine iron well left of the flag and two putted from 30 feet.

He won because Woods pulled a three-foot putt.

Straight yanked it.

“The putt, I’ve been blocking them all day, and then with that little left-to-righter, I didn’t block that one,” he said.

Woods made his legend by burying all kinds of do-or-die putts.

He is the best clutch putter that golf has ever seen.

And now he’s missing three-footers for all the marbles?

And if he had, back in the day, choked on a little one, it’s hard to imagine him smiling and shaking Johnson’s hand like it was no big deal.

“He was very gracious, as he usually is,” said Johnson.

Winners can afford to be gracious.

It’s not like Woods didn’t have an incentive to win.

This was the 14th and last time his World Challenge would be held at Sherwood, a place close to his Southern California roots.

Woods, a five-time champion of the event, would’ve loved nothing more than to leave for Florida on the highest of notes.

“This was the last time my dad ever got a chance to watch me play live, and this event has always had special meaning for my father and I,” he said.

“And as I said, if we didn’t have this event, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to build a learning center down in Anaheim.”

So what happened?

Woods had a four-shot lead with eight holes to play, three of them par fives. It should’ve been a sure thing.

“Most of the week, except for Friday (when he tied his own course record of 62), I was struggling blocking putts, and today was a perfect example of that,” he said.

“I blocked a lot of putts today and just had a tough time finding my release point.

“I just could not find my release point, no matter what I tried to do to adjust and just wasn’t there.”

Woods did open the door for Johnson by three-putting the two-tiered 14th after failing to make birdie at the (statistically) easiest hole on the course, the par-5 11th, and the par-5 13th.

“Putting comes and goes,” he said.

“You have your good days and bad days.”

But what about the pulled wedge into 17 after Johnson nearly holed his nine iron? What about the bad tee shot on 18 in regulation and the poor approach in the playoff?

What about the weekend scores of 72-70 that continue a two-year decline in weekend scoring average? In 16 events on the PGA Tour this year, Woods has posted only two Sunday rounds in the 60s, and neither of them were in his five wins.

What does this say about Woods’ pursuit of the Jack Nicklaus record of 18 majors? He’s not going to win majors by “over-releasing” the toe of his putter from three feet.

Johnson, who clearly likes Woods, cautioned not to read too much into these tea leaves.

“He played great,” he said of Woods.

“He didn’t make as many putts as I did. That’s all it really was.

“There’s a reason why young guys, he’s their idol. He’s their Jack Nicklaus.

“He’s the guy that’s paved the way. He’s the one that keeps pushing the ceiling higher and higher and he’s the one that keeps raising the bar. If he stays healthy — hopefully he does — there’s no telling what he can do.

“The guy never ceases to amaze me. What we witnessed early 2000 through, what, 2007 or something like that was ridiculous.

“And who’s to say he can’t do it again?”

Who, indeed?