Tiger Woods is the odds-on favorite to don his fifth green jacket at Augusta, and Paul Azinger, for one, believes it’s the top-ranked golfer’s putting that will get him one trophy closer to surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.
“I believe the gap between Tiger and the next best guy may be the size of the Grand Canyon again if he...continues to putt that way,” Azinger, a 12-time PGA Tour winner and ESPN analyst, said during a Thursday conference call with reporters ahead of next week’s Masters Tournament.
Since his renowned mini-lesson with Ryder Cup partner Steve Stricker last month, Woods has been putting lights out -- something a younger Tiger did with such ho-hum regularity that when a more mature version of himself missed, the golf world took notice. Like a five-footer for eagle on No. 15 in the final round of the 2011 Masters.
“It was a shortish putt...that would have grabbed the lead, and he missed it, and he flinched on that putt,” Azinger said. “We all saw it.”
As Joe Posnanski observed recently, several of Woods’ shots factor into a list of the 50 greatest clutch putts of all time -- topped by the 60-foot “better than most” birdie putt that helped him clinch the 2001 Players Championship.
Indeed, Woods racked up four top-10 finishes in the PGA Tour’s strokes gained-putting stat between 2004 and 2008, before all hell broke loose in his private life, taking his confidence and putting with it.
Now, thanks to Stricker’s tips and good health that allows him to practice his short game again, Woods is either draining putts he used to make or coming awfully close. And there’s nothing visible to the naked eye that can account for the changes that have him leading the field in putting.
“If you look at Tiger, what he's doing, setup and that, you really can't see any difference. The changes that have been made are so fine,” two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North said. “This isn’t rocket science.”
What was detectable, North believed, was the self-assurance with which Woods approached balls on the greens starting back in January when he won the Farmers Insurance Open -- pre-Stricker. And that, North prognosticated, was bad news for the rest of the field.
“I thought even in San Diego we saw Tiger much more confident with his putter before any of these lessons. I thought we saw a Tiger like we saw five or six years ago,” North said, adding that Woods’ putting had been a shortcoming for the past four or five seasons.
“He's doing that better now, and it looks like he's more comfortable,” North noted. “It looks like he's got a lot of confidence, and you put all that together, and you'd better watch out.”
“If Tiger plays well, what does it matter what the other ones do?” he asked rhetorically. “That's the way I feel about [next] week.”