For Tiger, putter holding him back
SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- As Tiger Woods continues to piece back together his game, so much of the focus is on his golf swing. And understandably so.
The guy who set records at all the major championships, who won tournaments and prize money in record numbers, who hit laser tee shots and towering irons into greens, made his name by doing things to a golf ball that few, if any, have ever done.
But along the way, Woods was always a clutch putter, making an inordinate amount of medium-length putts that were far from gimmes while seemingly always holing the ones he positively had to make.
It is no secret that the magic on the greens is missing and has been for some time.
That was evident again Thursday during the first round of the Frys.com Open at CordeValle Golf Club, where Woods walked off most of the slow, rain-soaked greens frustrated and shot a 2-over 73 that left him six strokes back of leaders Briny Baird and Brendan Steele.
It was a disappointing return to competitive golf for Woods, 35, whose year has been derailed by injuries and inactivity and who is going on two years without a victory.
"That's probably one of the worst putting rounds I've ever had,'' he said. "I can't putt the ball any worse than I did today.''
When was the last big putt Woods made?
The one on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open comes to mind. And the 72nd hole of the 2009 Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he won his first tournament since major knee surgery. He made a pretty big eagle putt earlier this year on the eighth hole at Augusta National during the final round of the Masters, one that helped him tie for the lead.
But Woods would be the first to point out that it was some big misses on the back nine that day that cost him a shot at his 15th major title. And it's been this way for a while, going back to the scandal that derailed his career in November 2009, one from which his game has yet to recover.
"I haven't practiced [putting] as much as I have in the past,'' Woods admitted. "I've been working on my full game. The hardest part today was I just didn't have the speed. I hadn't putted on greens this speed and I played over at the Institute [a nearby course associated with the tournament] the other day, and they were really quick.
"We played [here] yesterday, and they were probably a little bit faster than they were today. The rain this morning and then the rain we had while we were playing just kept slowing them up.''
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No doubt, Woods prefers fast greens. It's one of the reasons he limited his early-season West Coast schedule as he moved into his career, finding that he preferred to hone his putting stroke on quicker greens to be better prepared for Augusta National.
But if his putting problems were difficult to pinpoint, it was clear something was amiss when Woods last year switched putters for the first time in more than 11 years. He had used the same Scotty Cameron model Titleist putter to win 13 of his 14 major championships and more than $60 million.
Then Woods showed up at St. Andrews last year with a Nike Method putter in his bag -- and went on to go back and forth for much of the remainder of the season. This year, when healthy, he's pretty much stayed with the Method, but the results have nonetheless been maddening.
This is just his 11th tournament of the year overall, his first since the PGA Championship in August. Undoubtedly there is some competitive rust, but these putting problems are not new. Woods admits he doesn't put in the work like in the past -- whether it's the long-game struggles, injury issues or simply indifference.
At tournament sites, Woods does not appear to put in much extra time on the greens. His sessions before a tournament round appear to be more of a warm-up than a practice putting session. He rarely sticks around to putt afterward.
It probably didn't help his disposition any that Woods was playing alongside amateur Patrick Cantlay, a 19-year-old sophomore at UCLA who had an excellent summer and beat Woods by four shots Thursday.
Cantlay was the low amateur at the U.S. Open and didn't finish worse than 25th in any of his four previous PGA Tour starts. He shot 60 at the Travelers Championship and generally has folks wondering why he isn't playing for pay.
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"He hits the ball reasonably long, very steady, and as we've seen this entire summer, the kid can putt,'' Woods said. "You don't shoot 60 without putting well.''
Putting statistics are always difficult to judge. Woods had just 27 putts Thursday, but the number is skewed because he hit only nine greens in regulation. He lamented several of the birdie chances he made, in addition to lipping out a short par putt on the third hole.
A better gauge perhaps is the new tour statistic that measures a player's putts gained versus the rest of the field. From 2005 to 2009, Woods ranked ninth, 22nd, third, third and second in that category. Last year he was 109th, and this year in limited starts, just 60th.
On Thursday, he ranked 101st out of the 132-man field.
Woods was not perfect in other parts of his game but hit the ball well enough to break par. It's the type of thing he used to do routinely, turning the 73 he shot into a 69 or 70.
But when the putts don't go in, you find yourself well behind a bunch of journeyman golfers in a Fall Series event with just nine of the top 100 players in the world and having to worry about making the cut.
"The rest of my game was not too bad,'' said Woods, who is T-86 after Round 1. "I hit some bad shots, yes. But I also hit some really good ones. And very pleased at the shots I was hitting most of the day.
"But I got nothing out of the round on the greens. And whatever momentum I could have gotten by hitting good shots ... I just missed putts.''
The sun was going down at CordeValle and Woods was headed to the practice putting green for some much-needed work with the flatstick. A Friday early-morning tee time beckons, as does, it appears, more work for Woods to get his game sorted out.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.