BETHESDA — — When Tiger Woods broke a 2 - 1/2 year drought without an official PGA Tour victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, it didn't come down to a crucial putt as in 2009. Woods, much like he did when he was the most dominant player on the planet, won by five shots.
When Woods backed up that win with another at the Memorial Tournament last month, matching host and fellow legend Jack Nicklaus for second place behind Sam Snead with 73 PGA Tour victories, it was a miraculous chip-in from the 16th green that Sunday which pushed him into the lead.
The difference in both wins was his ball-striking, not his putting stroke. In fact, can you remember the last time Woods, once considered among the greatest putters in history, made a pressure putt to win a big tournament?
It might have been at Palmer's Bay Hill tournament in 2009, when Woods made a 16-footer on the final hole to win after missing nine months following major reconstructive knee surgery. Even Woods would be hard-pressed to come up with anything else since.
"I would certainly say my short game has been something that has taken a hit," Woods said Tuesday at the Congressional Country Club, where he will play the role of host and favorite when the AT&T National begins Thursday.
But Woods said that the same thing that seems to be happening as he revamps his swing under Sean Foley, happened in the past when he underwent major overhauls under former coaches Butch Harmon and Hank Haney.
"During that period of time, my short game went down, and it's because I was working on my full game," Woods said. "Eventually, I get to a point where the full games becomes very natural feeling and I can repeat it day after day, and I can dedicate most of my time to my short game again."
History suggests that Woods' putting deteriorated after he won the 1997 Masters, from streaky (60th overall) that year to downright struggling the next (147th) as he and Harmon reworked his swing. When he and Haney made changes in 2004, his putting actually improved from 10th in 2003 to second.
The biggest difference now for Woods appears to be in his short putting.
In 2008, when he won the last of 14 career majors, Woods was ranked first in putts between 15 and 25 feet as well as first in putts from 3 to 5 feet. This year, he is first on putts between 20 and 25 feet, 69th on putts between 5 and 15 feet and 21st on putts between 3 and 5 feet.
Woods admits his putting in particular let him down at this year'sU.S. Open, where after being tied for the lead through 36 holes, he struggled to make many putts on the weekend. He wound up tied for 21st, his worst 72-hole finish in the Open ever as a professional.
Asked what he took from his performance at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Woods said, "I think that overall it was — the way I struck the golf ball — I was very pleased by that. I didn't particularly chip or putt well that week, something I had done at Memorial.
"Obviously at the Open, that's just one of the things you have to do, and I didn't do that. I didn't make anything from 15 to 20 feet. I made a bunch of putts from 8 to 10 feet and in, but I didn't make any other putts."
Woods said he is not considering going to a belly putter or even a variation of one, as Phil Mickelson experimented with briefly earlier this year and other, much younger players, have switched to, including recent U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson and 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley.
"I've tried it (in practice), and my stroke is infinitely worse," Woods said. "It's just not good. I like the flow of my stroke. I like how I putt. I think I've done all right with mine, and I think I'm going to stick with it."
Though Woods would never admit it, considering that at age 36 he thinks he has plenty of years left to break Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories and Snead's mark of 82 overall wins, it could come down to a matter of nerves.
Many players, including Tom Watson in his prime, seemed to lose theirs on the green as they hit their mid-30s.
For those who question why Woods would tinker at all, he said that the most recent swing change was necessitated by four knee surgeries.
"I didn't want to play that way because it hurt, and it hurt a lot," Woods said. "Was I good at it? Yeah , I was good at it, but I couldn't go down that road and there's no way I could have had longevity in the game if I would have done that. I finally have a swing that doesn't hurt, and I am still generating power."
Putting could be the difference in Woods winning another major after the age of 34, as happened to Watson and Arnold Palmer.
"I haven't done it since '08. We all go through periods where that doesn't happen," Woods said. "Some periods are entire careers. But I think I understand how to win major championships. The key is just giving yourself chances. That's the key, giving yourself opportunities on the back nine on Sunday each and every time. That's one of the reasons Jack was good at it."
Nicklaus might not have been as good a putter late in his career as he was earlier, but he made enough to win two majors at age 40 and become the oldest player to win the Masters at age 46. Woods is still ahead of Nicklaus' pace, but will his magic touch on the greens ever return?
The AT&T National returns to the Congressional Country Club after a two-year absence with a rejuvenated Tiger Woods,a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, as its host.
When: Today (Pro-Am), Thursday-Sunday, 72-hole event
Where: Congressional Country Club, Bethesda
Who: A field of 120, led by Woods, Hunter Mahan, Dustin Johnson, amateur Beau Hossler and former Naval Academy player Billy Hurley III
Purse: $ 5 million, $1.16 million to winner
Tickets: $30 for Wednesday and Thursday, $35 Friday-Sunday, $100 for six.
Parking: $10 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, $20 at Rock Spring lot
TV: Golf Channel 3-6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; CBS 3-6 p.m. on Thursday, 3-6:30 p.m. on Sunday
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