Big putts trump Woods's shotmaking skills
DORAL, Fla. (AP) All anyone is talking about is the putt.
But when Tiger Woods called his swing coach the morning after Bay Hill, all he wanted to talk about was the shot that set it up.
"He was so happy with himself," Hank Haney said.
It was a 5-iron from 164 yards, and those two numbers are but one example why this was an exquisite shot.
The wind had switched and was coming into him from the right. The flag was tucked behind the lake on a green framed by rocks. Bunkers guard the back of the green, which slopes toward the water.
And the most important detail? Woods was on the 18th hole, tied for the lead.
He could have hit an 8-iron that distance, even in this scenario. It's surprising to hear Woods' club selection over various shots, considering his strength, yet Haney said Woods is all about control, and he prefers to use more club than usual in the wind.
"The hardest thing to do under pressure is play a delicate shot," Haney said. "Under the hardest conditions, you'd rather have a shot that you can swing at hard. All he could talk about was the shot on 18. He told me, 'I knew if I didn't do it right, I could upshoot it into the wind and it's in the water. If I flipped it, I hit it in the back bunker.' He had to commit to do it correctly. And he pulled it off.
"That was phenomenal. That made him feel good."
Also overlooked was the celebration.
Woods showed a new twist when he made the birdie putt to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He backpedaled as it broke sharply to the right and headed for the hole. He wound up for a big fist pump, as usual, only this time he snatched off his cap and spiked it.
But what Haney noticed was a hand slap back in the fairway.
Woods held a slight cut with his 5-iron against the wind and posed over the shot until it landed safely some 25 feet above the hole. His caddie, Steve Williams, held out his hand and Woods slapped it with force.
"I've played with him so much. I've been around him so much," Haney said. "But it's always fun to see shots he gets excited about."
It's only natural for so much attention to be on the winning putt, especially the way Woods reacted.
Woods is all about winning, and it never gets old. Bay Hill was his 64th career victory, and it many respects it was routine. This was not a major. He didn't make any history except for tying Ben Hogan at No. 3 on the tour's all-time victory charts.
But there is equal satisfaction in shotmaking, and Woods must wonder if he gets his due.
Steve Stricker was in Orlando last week on vacation with his family, but he saw the finish and immediately sent a playful text to Woods. "You make everything," the message said. That's an inside joke between them, for Woods sent him the same text last month at the Accenture Match Play Championship when Stricker made a 50-foot birdie putt to win on the 20th hole in the second round.
Even so, there is a sentiment that Woods' success comes mainly from making so many putts.
That might have been the case in 2000, which for years was a standard that even Woods had a tough time matching. He has said many times over the last few months that he is better than 2000, but it remains to be seen whether anyone believes him.
Most people see only the results.
Woods won nine out of 20 events on the PGA Tour, including three straight majors. He is perfect in 2008, but it has only been three tournaments, and the Masters is still a month away. Still, Woods says he has never had more control of his game than now, and the frightening thing is he doesn't feel like he has reached his peak.
"I'm hitting shots that I never could hit before, even in 2000," he said. "People think, 'Yeah, you played great.' But I made everything. I'm actually hitting the ball better now than I did during that stretch."
And that's no accident.
Woods once told Golf Digest he was envious of Hogan and Canadian legend Moe Norman, saying they were the only two players who truly owned their swing. Woods was asked Sunday how close he was to owning his.
"I'm starting to understand it," said Woods. "Those guys were able to fix their game, especially Hogan, because he played a lot of tournaments. He was one of the first guys to ever do a lot of swinging at night in hotel rooms, to try to figure it out for the next day. That's the whole idea of understanding your game, so you can fix it on the fly."
Woods not only is miles ahead of his competition, he is working as hard as anyone.
How do you catch up with that?
Woods now has won 16 of his last 25 starts on the PGA Tour, a staggering 64 percent. Even more frightening is to wonder if Woods, 32, has even reached his peak. Jack Nicklaus is next on the PGA Tour's career victory list at 73, with nearly half those wins (35) coming after he turned 32.
"The more he wins, the more determined he is to improve," Haney said. "His desire to improve is at its highest right now."
One thing missing from their conversation Monday morning was the winning streak, which began in September. Woods didn't talk about five in a row on the PGA Tour, six in a row worldwide. He only cared about one tournament, one shot, one putt.
As he walked toward the parking lot Sunday evening at Bay Hill, Woods was asked how long he would relish this victory.
"Tonight," he said. "I've got another tournament this week."