|Tiger Woods' putting prowess at Augusta has waned over the years, leading to a title drought. (Getty Images)|
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For the better part of a decade, Tiger Woods won at Augusta National by making seemingly every clutch putt, no matter how suffocating the pressure, whenever he needed it most.
As time passes, whether it was ever true or not, it has become a near-mythic part of the lore: Woods always got the ball in the hole, seemingly by exerting his will.
For the past six years, though, Augusta has been exerting its won't.
Trying to end the longest major-championship slump of his career, Woods this week rolled into Georgia, trying to jointly snap his longest current drought at any of the four Grand Slam events.
There's a heavy emphasis on the rolled part, too. For all his memorable runs at Augusta over the past six years, Woods nonetheless has not won the Masters since 2005, and he has almost uniformly cited one club as the primary culprit in his post-tournament exhumation.
It's the putter, which at times has gone so stale, formaldehyde might be the best and only remedy.
|Tiger putting at Masters|
Maybe it is an age-related erosion in his game, a lack of confidence, that about half the club's greens have been tweaked since Woods last won, or a confluence of the three. But the simple facts are, few players don the green jacket when jacking it around the green.
Last year, when he finished T4, Woods had six three-putt greens and ranked T32 in putting for the week. On the tournament eve last year, he talked about how his putter had failed him -- some clairvoyant foreshadowing, as it turned out.
"Yeah, not putting well certainly has cost me a few Masters," Woods said two days before the 2011 event. "I felt that I had a pretty good shot on a couple of different occasions to win on the back nine and just putted poorly."
Viola, five days later, he three-raked the 12th hole and missed a 6-footer for eagle on the 15th to all but detonate his chances of winning. It was a familiar theme, really, one that has followed Woods even as the rest of his game has steadily improved over the past few weeks. At Augusta, it has just been more pronounced.
No course has been more greatly massaged annually than Augusta National, which usually tweaks a couple of greens each offseason. This year, it was the eighth and 16th greens.
"On these greens, a subtle change is pretty significant at this speed," Woods said Tuesday.
Somewhere, Woods lost a measure of the magic, perhaps because of the constant evolution of the putting surfaces. When he won in 1997, a victory that transcended the game because of the social implications, the first memory of the week cited by former caddie Mike "Fluff" Cowan is that Woods "didn't have a three-putt all week."
So, in a way, there was nowhere to go but down. To be clear, Woods has four Masters titles, but since his last victory in '05 -- which included a green in which he putted a ball into a creek on the 13th hole -- it has mostly been a regression. It's not just that Woods has had six three-putts twice over that span, but the timing of misses in general.
"No matter how you play the golf course, no matter how well you play, you're going to have to make 6- and 8-footers for par," Woods said last spring. "It's just a given here. And some of those years, I didn't make those putts. That's what has kept me out of the winner's circle."
Then he went out and proved himself right.
Woods has been broadly experimenting for two years, trying to find the right fix. Last year at the Masters, he used a mallet-style putter and had more weight planted on his left leg. Earlier this season, he tried a putter grip by a different manufacturer, before changing back. He physically gripped the putter two different ways in the middle of a tournament in December, switching back and forth.
This after using the same putter for 13 straight major-championship victories, mind you. No matter how it's spun, Woods has visibly lost the plot on the Augusta greens and it has cost him.
With the world watching and wondering whether he can climb back to No. 1, the issue becomes whether he can get it back.
Sure, Woods won in 2001 and '05 with four three-jacks each year, but he has finished in Augusta's top 20 in putting (putts divided by greens) rank only once since the latter victory. In his four Masters wins, he finished 19th in putting on average, while over the past six years, he logged in at an average of 26th. Big difference when distinguishing between first and fourth, where he finished in both 2010 and '11.
His former coach, Hank Haney, use to preach long and loud about the importance of minimizing three-putts and ex-caddie Steve Williams once calculated that Tiger won 85 percent of his starts when he avoided them for an entire week. Haney wonders whether Woods is putting in enough practice time on the greens.
"His putting is something that is a concern," Haney said last week while promoting a new book about his six years teaching Woods. "If he putts well, he is probably going to win. He's playing well enough, hitting the ball well enough. That has been what's held him back at Augusta the last six years.
"That's going to be the thing at Augusta, can he avoid the three-putts? And if he avoids the three-putts, he'll be right there and he should have a great opportunity to win."
Two weeks ago, Woods ended a 30-month drought in PGA Tour play with a victory at Bay Hill, making major strides with his full swing. Only in a sport as complex and mentally taxing as golf could fixing a putting stroke prove a tougher overhaul.
"I think it's easier to rebuild your long game," six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus said last month. "The long game should not be difficult to make adjustments to. Putting? If you lose your confidence in putting or chipping, it's very tough.
"It's [used] every hole. The long game you can figure out some way to get the ball around the golf course. I haven't watched Tiger enough to know what he's doing, but I know he's not putting like he was. He seems to be hitting the ball the way he was."
Pretty fair assessment, really. Like many, Nicklaus recalls in his mind's eye all the times Woods nailed down gotta-have putts seemingly without fail. Nicklaus traces the beginning of a gradual slide to Woods' upset loss at the 2009 PGA Championship, when he lost the 54-hole lead at a major for the first time and was beaten by playing partner Y.E. Yang.
"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. "When he had to make a putt -- drano. Numerous occasions. It was fantastic. The last [U.S.] Open he won in San Diego, phew.
"Then all of a sudden you don't make those putts. Nobody has ever beaten him down the stretch before. It wasn't so much that Tiger did something wrong, it was that somebody else actually did something right.
"He never had that happen before."
It has happened a few times since. To Nicklaus, the putter sputters seem like a confidence issue as much as anything. Makes as much sense as anything, right?
"If he came to the Masters this year and wins," Nicklaus said, "he's back on his run again."