Raise your hand if you were impressed by Tiger Woods’ performance at the WGC-Cadillac Championship last weekend…lots of hands, including mine. Woods’ 2-shot victory over Steve Stricker, his apparent new putting coach, looked like it could have been a video replay from a majority of his previous 75 wins on the PGA TOUR….except for the back 9 on Sunday.
It really looked like a textbook Tiger victory; a script we’ve all read before and were happy to read again. Tiger jumps out to a lead, blitzing TPC Cookie Monster Blue Monster for 20 birdies in his first 39 holes and opening a four shot lead…game over. And it was…but that back 9 on Sunday.
Statistically, this was Tiger in his vintage form: he hit 54% of the fairways, 69% of the greens, he gained just under 2 strokes against the field with his putting, he converted 75% of his sand saves, and made 348 feet of putts. In summary, he drove reasonably well, hit his irons well, was great around the greens and putted superbly…but then the back 9 on Sunday.
I don’t want to throw the proverbial wet blanket on Tiger’s win, and I’m not. He was in tremendous form and it was great to watch him play that well. I WILL throw my wet blanket on the sentiment that he is a near-lock to win The Masters in a month.
My apprehension with Tiger as a Masters favorite has nothing to do with Phil Mickelson’s strong showing at Doral, coupled with a win in Phoenix; it is not at all related to “Big Game Graeme” McDowell’s string of top 10s to start his PGA TOUR season; it’s certainly not about the red-hot start by Brandt Snedeker on the West Coast; and it is MOST CERTAINLY not at all related to Rory McIlroy’s final round 65 at Doral. Rather, the issue that gives me pause when considering Tiger’s chances at Augusta is…the back 9 on Sunday.
Let’s look at Tiger’s two wins this year:
First, his eighth career victory at Torrey Pines, near San Diego. Tiger was the 54-hole leader and increased his lead to 8 shots at one point during the final round. Previous incarnations of Tiger would have at least maintained the 8 shot margin, or perhaps increased it. And by doing so, serving notice that he is, in fact THE alpha dog on TOUR by stepping on the throats of his competitors.
Instead, Tiger’s lead was cut in half, he won by four. And yes, I understand that the final round of that Farmers Insurance Open had to be finished Monday and that it took Woods’ group 4 HOURS to complete their final 11 holes, due in large part to slow play from the group in front. I get that. But there wasn’t anyone making a serious charge to Tiger, no one was going super-low to try and catch him. Tiger left some shots go that Monday. While he still won by four, a runaway for many players, it was simply out of his character to give back that many shots.
But that was once, with fluky final round circumstances, surely he fared better at Doral…
Not so much. Tiger built a five-shot lead, which was down to four as he stood on the 10th tee, 3 iron in hand. He had already begun his customary “I-have-a-big-lead-in-the-final-round” cruise of conservative play at the 9th by hitting a safe shot to the center of the green and two-putting for par. Then, on the par 5 tenth, Tiger hit that 3 iron to the center of the fairway, layed up with a 3 wood and made birdie. His clear message to his pursuers was “I’m not giving this thing away, boys. Catch me, if you can.”
In this situation, in the past anyway, Tiger would have made about five or six routine pars, had to grind out one or two more, and perhaps made another birdie on a par 5.
Sunday, Tiger was suddenly missing greens and the one or two grinding pars became three or four. He drove it into the fairway-splitting bunker on the 11th; it’s easy to lay back from that bunker. He did not birdie the par 5 12th, just a par. He missed a 15 footer, which was pin high, on the 15th. On the 14th tee, Tiger pulled his new red 5 wood, choked down, swung and finished with one hand off the club…as the ball rolled down the center of the fairway. NBC Commentators Johnny Miller, Peter Jacobson and Roger Maltbie expressed some dismay at Tiger’s reaction, considering the ball’s position. Tiger then made par, from the center of the fairway.
Now to the 16th tee: Players are choosing to lay up rather than going for the green off the tee on the short par 4. Tiger makes the same choice, and promptly pulls his 3 iron into the left fairway bunker. Like the 11th, it was easy enough to avoid. Next, he chunked his shot from the bunker, leaving himself well short of the green in two. As Roger Maltbie pointed out, Tiger did not survey the green before his third shot, a pitch that rolled 30-plus feet past the hole. He two-putted for bogey, a rare occurrence for Tiger in this situation. 3-shot lead.
A routine par at 17th sends us to the difficult 18th, whose prevailing wind is blowing. Tiger hits the sensible shot, missing the fairway to the right, not wanting anything to do with the water on the left. He ends up behind a palm tree, and opts to pitch out to 115 yards. This distance gave Tiger a ¾ wedge to the back left pin. Short and left is wet and dead. Woods knocks it the edge of the fringe, not nearly as close as he was expecting. His fourth is chipped well past the hole, as he was trying to hole it. Another bogey for a 2-shot win.
He still got it done, right? He had some space to play with and he never really gave Steve Stricker, nor any other player, a realistic opening to try and jump through. So why the nit-picking?
Granted, Tiger had large enough leads at Torrey and Doral that his minor stumbling across the finish line wasn’t going to cost him a tournament. And it’s likely that if someone had tried to snatch the victory from him, Tiger would have switched to a more aggressive style to protect his lead. Also conceivable, at least after watching him at Doral, is that he was doing some experimenting that his position afforded him to do. The tee shots at 14 and 16 certainly were curious.
Whether it was experimenting or just sloppiness the fact remains that Tiger’s final round leads have been cut in half, mostly by his own doing, in both of his 2013 wins. That is alarming, and more than anything, it’s un-Tiger-like. Tiger is the greatest frontrunner in the history of sports. He doesn’t maintain leads or barely hang on, he increases his lead, he forces the chasers to take chances and do themselves in. His 75th and 76th career wins have lacked that certain quality.
All of this leads me to the one event Tiger has had circled on his calendar since his T11 finish at the PGA Championship last August, The Masters. With one more start before Augusta at one of his most comfortable spots, The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Tiger has one more homework assignment: tighten up his play on the back 9 Sunday, because, as the saying goes, that’s when The Masters begins.
Whether it’s Sarazen’s albatross at the 15th in 1935 to force a playoff, Jack’s indelible 30 in 1986, or Charl Schwartzel’s closing four birdies in 2011, the final nine holes at Augusta are likely to decide the tournament. If Woods finds himself in the lead as he stands on the tenth tee, or emerges from Amen Corner he cannot afford to give any openings.
Now, will his focus be heightened? Yes.
Will he try experimenting off the 14th and 16th tees? Hell. No.
Might one of the world’s best players, perhaps within shouting distance, rise to the opportunity to snatch the Green Jacket off of Tiger’s shoulders? You know the answer is yes, should the circumstances present themselves.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a Tiger Woods fan. And I want him to win The Masters. I believe he’ll win a major this year. I want it to be at Augusta National. I am eager to resume The Ascent up Mount Nicklaus. With 5 wins in 50 weeks, Tiger has proven that he is 100% “back” when it comes to non-major tournaments. The last step is major championship #15. IF Woods hopes to get there on the second Sunday in April, he’ll need to tie up the loose ends of his tournament victories from 2013.