For Tiger Woods, a bad day at the office
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The foreboding signs were there early, when Tiger Woods stuck his approach at the par-5 second to 5 feet and his ensuing birdie putt never hit the hole.
Amateur partner Tony Romo made a longer birdie on the hole and generally played better (although let's not get silly, he had a huge advantage playing from the amateur tees) than Woods, who seemed poised to earn his first official victory in more than two years.
Instead, Woods went backward, shooting the highest score of any player who finished inside the top 40 and besting just four players in the field.
A 3-over-par 75 in the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was bad enough, but that it came in the company of Phil Mickelson, who fired a bogey-free, 8-under-par 64, had to make it worse.
Through six holes, Woods was just two strokes off the lead, and then he made three straight bogeys. He missed five putts inside of 5 feet and needed 31 for the round.
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"As good as I felt on the greens [Saturday] is as bad as I felt today," said Woods, who shot 67 during the third round to put himself in third place, four back of 54-hole leader Charlie Wi. "I could not get comfortable where I could see my lines. I couldn't get the putter to swing. I just could not get comfortable.
"It was frustrating, because I was looking to get 2 or 3 under par through six or even seven. And Phil got off to that start. He was 5 under through six. I figured I probably would have a chance to pick it up through the middle part of the round. Instead I went the other way.
"I missed a ton of short putts today. I didn't hit it as bad as the score indicated. But I missed everything."
Two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, Woods was tied for the 54-hole lead, but struggled with his long game and putted great to salvage a 72 and a third-place tie. At times, he has putted well and hit it poorly and vice versa. Putting it all together, especially on Sunday, has proved difficult.
Woods has now had four positive stroke-play results going back to the Australian Open in November, where he finished third, followed by a win at the unofficial Chevron World Challenge and the tie for third in Abu Dhabi.
A tie for 15th at Pebble Beach when he was within two of the lead with 12 holes to go is certainly not the result Woods was looking for and will lead to talk that he's still battling the mental demons or that his swing is not quite ready for the cauldron of contention.
"Probably just one of those days," said Woods' swing coach, Sean Foley, via text message. "Not the finish we were looking for but he is improving all the time. I believe every day he shot the highest score he could have. To do that and finish 15th means great things are in store going forward.
"Remember, controlling the ball from tee to green is only part of the process."
Woods said he was slightly off, but that his swing was actually better than it was the day prior when he shot 67. That kind of stuff happens in golf. He made a bunch of putts Saturday. On Sunday, he really made none. He had just two birdies, one a two-putt at the par-5 sixth and the other holing out a bunker shot at the 12th.
The hole-out offered a glimmer of hope, as Mickelson appeared in trouble. A bogey would have meant being tied for the lead and only three up on Tiger with six holes to go. But Mickelson made a 40-footer for par and ended up holing all 14 of his putts from inside 10 feet. For the day, Mickelson hit 13 of 14 fairways (to 10 for Woods) and 14 of 18 greens (to nine for Woods).
"He was hitting it flush," Woods said. "To hear the sound, his trajectory was really good. And his wedge game was right on the money. Every shot that he had wedge, he hit it inside 10 feet. And it's a little tricky to do because the greens have so much pitch. He was doing it great."
For his part, Mickelson doesn't think it will be long for Woods.
"It can change in one week," he said. "It's such a night and day difference [from where he was]. Now he's just striping it at his target with a tiny little fade just like he used to do. And his iron play looked extremely sharp.
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"I know the score wasn't what he wanted and I know he didn't putt the way he wanted to, but you could tell that he's really close and that all it takes is one week."
Perhaps that week will come in Tucson, where Woods will make his next start at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- although that format is not the best gauge for judging a player's play, as the November Presidents Cup pointed out.
For stroke-play opportunities, there have been murmurings that he'll play the Honda Classic in the first week of March. If not, he will certainly be at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral the following week.
Big picture, the past four stroke-play events have been a nice run for Woods. But Sunday's 75 will sting until the next time he tees it up.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.