If you're wondering why Tiger Woods didn't win the 2008 Masters, the answer is simple: He wasn't the best ball-striker. Trevor Immelman was.
The Masters is my favorite tournament because the green jacket almost always goes to the player who hit the ball the best. What do I mean by ball-striking? Look at Masters champions like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger. What makes them so special isn't how far they hit the ball; it's how they shape shots, control spin, and even miss the ball in the right places. Augusta National tests ball-striking skills like no other course. It constantly asks you to hit a draw off the tee to ride the wind on the right-to-left doglegs, and then makes you cut or fade your approach to fight the wind and keep the ball on the green.
Immelman won this week because he out-Tigered Tiger. He hit the ball better, played smarter, and sank the putts he had to. Check the stats: He hit more fairways than Tiger, hit more greens, and even averaged four more yards off the tee. His win isn't as big an upset as you might think. Immelman has one of the finest swings in the game. Fellow South African Gary Player calls it the best he's since Hogan. Praise for a golfer doesn't get loftier than that.
I was glad to see Immelman win because his smart play and clutch putting reminded me of Masters champions like Nicklaus. And Tiger? Well, he was a litter sloppier than Immelman tee-to-green and didn't make the putts he needed to. Tiger is so good he can win tournaments with his B-game, but this week he couldn't overcome these three problems:
1. Tiger didn't make enough key putts
You don't need to be a golf expert to realize that Tiger didn't putt as well as usual this week. He said afterward that he felt that he couldn't start the ball rolling on the line he wanted and didn't have his usual control. That's part of it, but when he missed his approach shots, he often missed in spots that left a difficult two-putt or up-and-down.
Take No. 14 on Sunday. Tiger hit his second shot to the bottom shelf of the green and left himself a putt that went both up and down a slope. He 3-putted for bogey, but that was due to his poor approach, not his putting stroke. Immelman? He missed his shot just over the green, which left him a much easier up-and-down for par.
2. Tiger made un-Tiger-like mistakes
The most surprising thing about Tiger's play this week was the amount of unforced errors he made. When he chunked it into the bunker on No. 2 in the second round, it was only the second bogey he'd made on the hole in his entire Masters career. His tee shot Sunday at the 510-yard par-5 13th was another shocker. Tiger loves to hit a draw, which sets up perfectly on this hole. Instead, he pushed his shot into the right trees. He hit a great wedge shot to set up a birdie putt, but he left himself far too much work and made par. Tiger should have an eagle or a birdie on No. 13 every time. It's just not natural you expect Tiger to make hay on the par 5s (holes 2, 8, 13 and 15), but today Tiger played them even. I never thought I'd see that on an Augusta Sunday.
3. Tiger wasn't Tiger
Woods' course management is second to none, and he's one of the smartest players ever. But I couldn't understand why he hit driver on No. 18 the last three days. Tiger is long enough to hit 3-wood to the center of the fairway and leave a 6-iron in. He's so intelligent, so it's strange to see him force his club selection. Maybe he was frustrated with his play and felt he needed to push for a birdie. He did play the hole par-par-birdie in the last three rounds, so driver didn't hurt him much. But those two pars demanded incredibly difficult approach shots from the trees. Over 72 holes, this catches up with you.
And, as it turns out, Tiger couldn't catch up with Immelman.