Match play loss more of the same for this new, putter-challenged Tiger

by | Senior Golf Columnist

'That is frustrating, because that's what I was struggling with all day,' Tiger says. (AP)  
'That is frustrating, because that's what I was struggling with all day,' Tiger says. (AP)  

MARANA, Ariz. -- He'd done it at Bay Hill three different times, at more than a few majors, and at too many other venues to catalog over the years.

Faced with putt after putt after putt on the last hole, when the cauldron was boiling and roiling, Tiger Woods always made the pressure-cooker effort when it mattered most.

We all know the career-defining script: You knew he was going to make it, he knew he was going to make it, and just as importantly, he knew that you knew he was going to make it.

All the plot points were in place Thursday in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain. In fact, opponent Nick Watney was so sure that Woods was going to make a five-footer on the 18th green, which would have forced extra holes, that he'd pulled his yardage book and pin sheet from his hip pocket and was studying the particulars of the first playoff hole.

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This time, on the stage where Woods once pushed and shoved his foes around seemingly at will, he did likewise with his putter in hand, fanning the birdie effort to the right of the cup as Watney survived a last-ditch Woods rally to claim a 1-up victory.

"We don't see him miss putts like that very often," Watney said. "And there were a few of them."

It's been a common lament for Woods since his last official PGA Tour victory nearly 30 months ago -- the most magical and trustworthy stick since Harry Potter's wooden wand let him down yet again, and after hitting two scintillating shots on the 18th, a hole he need to win to extend the match, he shoved another one wide right.

In all, Woods missed eight putts from inside 15 feet, including five from 10 feet or closer.

It was fitting ending, really, since it had already happened umpteen times. Throw in a few misread greens and you had a very annoyed former world No. 1 who wasn't at all adept at getting the ball in the hole.

"That is frustrating, because that's what I was struggling with all day," Woods said. "It's the same putt, that block."

This result was a chip off that same block, for sure. It left yet another dent in the once-unassailable Woods aura, or what's left of it.

Woods had spent some extra time on the practice green in the morning before his round, rolling putts and trading friendly barbs with Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley. Five hours later, he was standing within inches of the same spot, trying to explain what went wrong with the shortest club in the bag, yet again.

Unlike his sloppy victory over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano in the first round, which he won with what amounted to a 1-over 73, he wasn't going to beat Watney, ranked No. 15 in the world, with anything less than his best stuff.

In fact, if there's anything we've learned over the past 2 1/2 years, it's that Woods can no longer win with his so-called B Game. It's been a talking point for months, though mostly in the form of locker-room whispers, and it was underscored again this week when he barely escaped his careening, opening-round match with a 1-up win.

In fact, if he putts the way he has in his two PGA Tour starts -- which included missing five times from five feet or closer in the final round at Pebble Beach -- he's going to have trouble winning matches for pocket money at his home club in South Florida.

"I should be able to fix it in about a day," Woods said tersely.

Um, with all due respect, we're going on, like, three years. At least compared to what we've grown accustomed to seeing, anyway.

Watney wasn't much better, missing a parade of putts himself and giving Woods a few chances to stay in the match when he should have been comfortably behind. Very evenly matched in horsepower, they ventilated the course from tee to green, then played Whack-a-Mole on the greens.

"It was fairly clean, from tee to green," said Watney, who tied for the tour lead with two victories last year. "But neither of us are going to remember this putting round."

Well, not in a positive light, he means.

Watney seemed to have the match in hand, leading 2-up with three to play, then hit a screaming hook that landed atop a hospitality tent behind the green, and came to rest on Astroturf decking by the back door, near a wooden staircase. When the glass doors to the hospitality tent were opened, he could see the green, and a well-watered woman inside chirped happily, "Come on inside."

Watney took a free drop and bogeyed to give the hole away, and just like old times, Woods had that extra spring in his step and feral look in his eye. After they traded pars on the 17th, Woods tossed an 8-iron from 180 yards that looked like it fell down a chimney, the ball landing next to the flag, a shade over five feet away.

Watney had missed the green and chipped to a foot for a conceded par, setting the stage for Woods to make the sure-thing birdie to extend the proceedings.

"I have so much respect for Tiger and his game, and I was fully expecting to go down No. 1," Watney said.

Watney was standing in the long line on that opinion. Woods slapped the ball wide and removed his hat in nearly the same motion, shook Watney's hand, and quickly bailed, still grousing about the insanely humpy and grainy greens on the Jack Nicklaus design.

As he had the day before, it literally started going sideways for Woods on the par-4 10th hole, where after a bad driver off the tee, he hit three shots from the desert gravel in his opening-round win. This time, he downshifted to a 3-wood and hooked it onto a fairway bunker, anyway.

Then the all-too-familiar fireworks, circa 2000-2008, began. With a tricky lie in the sand, Woods slashed the ball out of the bunker and it sailed into some cacti, prompting him to drop the club in the sand, retrieve it, and fire it helicopter-style at his bag.

Unlike with his putter, it was a direct hit. As he climbed out of the sand, he could be heard uttering a string of profane comments that, translated from Cablinasian, must have meant, "that was not my intended result."

Woods found his ball under a cholla cactus, removed three large rocks, and had to hit a shot left-handed, eventually recording his second double-bogey in as many days on the 10th. As he walked to the 11th tee, 1-down in the match, he was quite literally still picking cactus needles out of his pants from near his right-rear pocket.

He trailed the rest of the way. Watney kept the pressure on, despite being a lopsided underdog. At one point, some liquored-up fans in a hospitality tent started chanting U-S-A, apparently unaware that Watney was born in Sacramento, not Sweden.

"It's interesting to play kind of an away match," Watney cracked.

Woods did his steely-eyed best to put his trademark cold stare on Watney, his comparatively even-keel foe. There weren't more than a dozen words exchanged all day.

"I expected that," Watney said. "I mean, I didn't really want to talk to him, either."

After almost blowing a 2-up lead in three holes, Watney was both shocked and relieved to have been let off the hook when Woods whiffed the closing birdie effort. Not long ago, everybody knows that Woods, 36, would have willed that putt into the jar. But Watney survived to face Lee Westwood in the round of 16 instead.

"This is what you dream about since Tiger came along," Watney said, "and has done what he's done."

After the past few months, does that statement need amending to past tense, as in ... Since he did what he did?


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