POTOMAC, Md. — Joe LaCava showed up for work on Tuesday afternoon and found something different in the bag of his boss, Tiger Woods — a TaylorMade TP Black Copper Ardmore 3 mallet putter.
"That was a surprise to me," LaCava said after Woods finished playing his pro-am round on the eve of the Quicken Loans National at TPC Potomac. "Whatever putter works I'm all for. I don't care what it is. If he wants to switch it up, we'll switch it up."
Woods remains non-committal, saying, "I'm going to figure that out later," but for the past two days his Scotty Cameron Newport 2 GSS, the putter he's used in all previous 10 starts of this latest comeback and for 13 of his 14 major championship, has been benched, locked away for safe-keeping in the trunk of his rental car, LaCava said.
Golfers change putters all the time. Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino won some tournaments using a different putter every round. Jesper Parnevik, who is competing in this week's U.S. Senior Open, tweeted as if to say, What's the big deal? "I've tested seven putters this week, and it's only Wednesday,” he said.
This isn't just any putter. Woods played in the pro-am with David Falk, the longtime agent for Michael Jordan, and this putter change felt like the equivalent of MJ playing hoops in tennis shoes rather than his signature high-tops. Aided by a sense of the moment that always seemed to allow him to will the ball into the hole, Woods's putter has been his sword and his shield throughout his illustrious career. How many times have we seen him strike a putt and the ball die just at the right moment and curl in? The answer is too many times to count.
But not this year. Woods conceded that he has struggled with his putting at his last four tournaments, most notably at the Wells Fargo Championship and the Memorial in May. It's time to characterize this for what it is: a full-fledged putting slump. He ranks 89th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Putting and 118th in total putting. His best putting performance was arguably his debut at Torrey Pines, when he hit the ball all over the lot and his putter was his salvation. So what's changed?
"I don't know," Woods said. "That's been the frustrating part."
Is this an act of desperation? Has Woods, at age 42, lost his putting touch the way many past champions, including Tom Watson, have in the latter stages of his career? It's possible, but my guess is no. More likely, he's simply trying too hard and is seeking a new look. Nothing provides a player more instant hope than holing a few putts with a new magic wand.
"It swings more than mine," Woods said of the Ardmore 3, which has a red face insert and 2.5-gram weights on the toe and heel sole plates. "That's something I've been looking for because I practice with, and I always have, with the heel-shafted putter at home and I like feeling that toe move and then I'll put my putter back in my hands and I'll putt."
Woods, who spent last week practicing in the Bahamas, said he began experimenting with different styles and shapes of putters early last week after missing the cut at the U.S. Open. He also confirmed that this week's tournament is scheduled to be his only start before the Open Championship at Carnoustie. That makes the Quicken Loans, where Woods has won in 2009 and 2012, the perfect time to experiment with a mallet putter that he described as "not quite a heel‑shafted and not quite a plumber's neck, so kind of right in between."
"I tried and tried to come up with something that I felt I could swing and trust," Woods said, adding that he doesn't want to get away from "my basic feel of my fingers and how I putt."
Until his death in 2006, the best second set of eyes for Woods had been those of his father. On the eve of the 1997 Masters, Earl watched Tiger hit three putts from his bedside and advised him that his hands were too low.
"Lift them up," Earl said. "Get that little arch in your hands like you always do."
"There's been no better teacher that I've ever had than my dad," Woods said. "I've had coaches throughout my career, but my dad was the best teacher I've ever had with putting and probably ever will."
And so Woods continues to search for what's missing on the green.
"Once I start to get that ball rolling on my lines," he said, "then I'll be back to putting like I was."
But we've never seen Woods so unsure about his flatstick on the eve of a tournament. In fact, after his Wednesday press conference, he returned to the practice putting green to put his new TaylorMade putter "through its paces to see if I can play with it." That's when a funny thing happened. The "Grand Experiment" grew as Woods began toying with multiple models. Before long, he sent Rob McNamara, a vice president with TGR, to fetch the famous Scotty Cameron putter.
So what putter will Woods use at 1:20 p.m. on Thursday?
"I don't think he's made the decision yet," LaCava said. "We'll know when he tees off tomorrow."