While Tiger evades questions, consistent putting stroke eludes him

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Tiger Woods tries to keep the media horde in its place during Wednesday's news conference. (AP)  
Tiger Woods tries to keep the media horde in its place during Wednesday's news conference. (AP)  

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- In a moment befitting our age of insane immediacy, where a twist of the tongue can seem like a complete verbal assault, the words had no sooner toppled over Tiger Woods' lower lip than they were posted for consumption all over the digital planet.

"Dis" became shorthand for dissection.

Woods was feeling a bit put-upon at the Honda Classic on Wednesday after three different inquisitors asked him questions about an upcoming book authored by his ex-swing coach, wherein it's suggested Woods considered quitting golf to become a Navy SEAL. When the questions persisted, the former world No. 1 got a bit cantankerous -- though you could just as easily have substituted contentious or combative.

It became a decidedly awkward series of perfectly legitimate questions, posed by longtime employees of ESPN and the Golf Channel, and ended with Woods offering a dismissive, "Have a good day," through slightly clenched, albeit smiling, teeth.

So begins Woods' week at the Honda, staged at a venue where he last played in 1990, when he was 14 and got run over in the final round of the prestigious PGA Junior Championship by 17-year-old Chris Couch, now a PGA Tour peer, and lost by 10 shots. So, in that narrow regard, not much has changed in 22 years.

Woods, whose first two starts on the U.S. tour this season have ended in big disappointments, still seems like a bigger question mark than ever. As for the Navy issue, it doesn't really matter -- his game blew a seal a while ago.

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With his pre-tournament confab in his new hometown backyard off to an adversarial start, it was sympathetically noted that Woods has faced unparalleled levels of scrutiny and analysis as he has tried to snap a U.S. winless streak that's approaching its 30th month.

"I think you're one of the guys that does that, too," Woods said to the questioner, drawing laughs.

Tiger 1, Media Slug 0. Of course, it unraveled like the rubber band on an old balata ball from there, with Woods playing hide and seek on the Hank Haney book issue, and offering only meager slivers about the state of his game.

Then again, given the way he has played at Pebble Beach and the Accenture Match Play Championship, he outsmarted us all again. He probably didn't wanna talk about that either, specifically his increasingly suspect putting stroke over the past few months.

Woods missed five putts from inside 6 feet in the final round at Pebble Beach, then fanned a must-make 6-footer on the last hole in his second match last week in Tucson that would have extended the session. Over the past few months, he has changed putters and his putting grip, which is not to be confused with the grip on his putter -- which he again changed this week, going back to the old Ping grip that he had used for most of his career.

Woods and swing coach Sean Foley believe Woods' short-game shortcomings are merely a matter of priority, and now that the full swing has been dialed in, the rest will follow suit as Woods spends more time on the greens. He even has a new short-game area in his Jupiter Island backyard, where he dials up the greens to the putting speeds to be used on tour that week.

Not that it seems to have helped so far. He has looked intermittently lost, and in his second-round loss at match play, looked like a hockey guy playing dump-and-chase.

"When I'm in the right posture, all of my lines are good, and I can roll the ball pretty good," he said.

All his best lines Wednesday were zingers at the scribes who continue to pester him about matters he doesn't care to discuss. But what's left to talk about, really? He is rarely asked about his private issues, which leaves his golf game, which isn't much more fun to dissect.

Which hasn't stopped us from doing it. And by us, we'll include two prominent guys who once occupied the top of the golfing mountain. They too have watched Woods rake it around, naked unto the world, powerless to fix it.

"I've seen a few physical differences with his putting stroke, because I'm a player and I've got an eye for it," Greg Norman said Wednesday. "Is that a technique, or is that tension, or is that a mental block?

"We all hate being in that position. When you see the best struggling, you feel for them because you know what it's doing to them inside, and every 5-foot putt he misses, you feel like another nail might be going in that gets a little bit deep and a little bit harder."

That said, Norman predicted that Woods would eventually figure it out. As did Jack Nicklaus, the only player who has won more professional majors than Woods. Whether they were being politely and politically correct, who knows?

"You don't always learn the ability to make that 6-footer every time you needed it, and he made a 6-footer every time he needed it," Nicklaus said this week. "When he had to make a putt -- drano. Numerous occasions. It was fantastic. The last U.S. Open he won [2008] in San Diego, phew."

That was the last major Woods won, by the way. His last official victory on the PGA Tour was in the fall of 2009, and in the time since, a whopping 32 players have recorded their first tour victories.

"I don't know that he's going to continue to beat the guys that, while he has been gone for what, 2½ years, whether these guys who have learned how to play and learned how to win, are probably no longer afraid of Tiger," Nicklaus said.

Evidently not.

Nicklaus admitted he hasn't watched Woods on TV much this season, though he noted that the highlights he saw from last week were mostly of Woods "out in the bushes a lot, out in the snakes." He could just as easily have mentioned the cacti, which would seem more appropriate, since predicting Woods' future is a prickly proposition.

"I haven't watched Tiger enough to know what he's doing, but I know he's not putting like he was," Nicklaus said.

Hank Kuehne is a frequent practice partner of Woods at their home track in South Florida, and he sort of started the day off with a grumble when the issue of Woods was broached.

"To be honest, I can't remember a time when he has looked better," Kuehne said Wednesday. "Now y'all are on him about his putter. He's going to be just fine. You need to back off him, and it will be a lot better for all of us."

Of course, after Wednesday's pressroom gunfire exchange, Woods might need to throttle it back a few pegs, too.

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