You could come up with many reasons why the stars, in particular Tiger Woods, are playing well going into this week's WGC-Cadillac Championship at — deep breath — TPC Blue Monster at Doral. But why make it complicated?
As it always does in golf, it comes down to putting.
"I just have an identity with my stroke now, how I want to stroke it, what I want to feel," Hunter Mahan said from Doral, where the wind is howling and all 50 of the top 50 players in the world will compete for the ninth time since 2005.
Mahan could have been speaking for Tiger Woods, who is coming off a final-round 62 and a tie for second at the Honda Classic last weekend; or Phil Mickelson, whose Sunday 64 won him the AT&T at Pebble Beach; or new No. 1 Rory McIlroy, whose scrambling to win the Honda was positively Phil-like.
Putting is everything. As golf stats guru Sal Johnson points out, McIlroy missed just four of 66 putts from inside 10 feet last week. Tiger missed 13 of 105 attempts. He tallied 34 putts in his first round. If you want to know why the new king beat the old king by two strokes, there's your difference and then some.
"It's a cool element of the game of golf," Mickelson said after winning at Pebble, and before teeing it up at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, "that you just never know when it's going to click, when it's going to turn."
What's cool for fans is that "it" has clicked for so many compelling players at once, and now, finally, it's even clicked for Woods. As former No. 1 Luke Donald said at Doral, you don't shoot 62 without making a lot of putts. And just as important, if not more so, is the way good putting minimizes the damage.
By his own admission, Woods was erratic in the second round of the Honda. Still, he shot 68. His "bad golf" used to yield such scores all the time. McIlroy hit several loose shots two days later, but got up and down from everywhere and still carded a 69 to win. For all the comparisons to Woods, who climbed to 16th in the world, McIlroy played more like Mickelson to take the Honda trophy and No. 1.
Now what? All three seem to be playing their best golf at once, and less than a month away from the Masters, we could be on the verge of some truly epic battles between three of the most gifted players the game has ever seen. The 20-year age difference, which at most points over the last few years has seemed vast and insurmountable, now seems completely insignificant.
"You know, I always had putts on the putting green when I was 10 years old to beat Tiger Woods or to beat Phil Mickelson," McIlroy said after winning the Honda. "But hopefully, it would be great to turn that into reality at some point."
Signs point to that reality happening sooner rather than later. Woods is a three-time winner at the Blue Monster, Mickelson won there in 2009, and McIlroy is capable of winning anywhere, having compiled 11 top-five finishes (including three wins) in his last 12 worldwide starts. All three, of course, have shown they can dominate at Augusta National — even if McIlroy only did so for 63 holes.
Mickelson, Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson made a scouting trip to Augusta to play the course Tuesday. McIlroy was waking up in New York, where he'd watched girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki play an exhibition match against Maria Sharapova — and even played a point against Sharapova himself.
"I've never been so nervous in my life," McIlroy said from Doral.
Where was Woods? What was he up to? He got to the course Wednesday and was scheduled to address the media around noon. The fact that we care again speaks to his resurgence. If you had sat in the press room at the Honda last week, where Woods came to talk once before the tournament and once afterward, you'd have been struck by the transformation he'd made in just a few days.
Before the tournament he was rubbed wrong by a question about an upcoming book written by his former instructor, Hank Haney, in collaboration with longtime golf scribe Jaime Diaz. Woods bristled at being pressed for comment, and his barely disguised hostility ("Have a good day") led to talk about how he never did well with the press and still doesn't, and so on.
Flash forward to Sunday, when Woods's 25-foot birdie putt on 17 set off a "bomb," as Graeme McDowell later called it, which led to an even louder bomb after Woods eagled the par-5 finisher. This was vintage Woods, circa 2000. He needed to make a three at 18, and his intensity and skill expanded to meet that need, yielding a 325-yard drive, a 203-yard 5-iron that settled equidistant between the pin and the water, punctuated by an eight-foot putt. Cue the hysteria.
How many players bring down the house like that? There's still really just one, so when Woods walked into the media room around cocktail hour Sunday, his red shirt looked extra red. It was like we'd been transported back in time, a time when nobody cared about Navy SEALs or who betrayed whom. Tiger was magically 24 again and ready to battle the 22-year-old McIlroy. Mickelson was somewhere else, with his family, most likely — gone but certainly not forgotten.
All three had found "an identity with their stroke," as Mahan might say, and all were brimming with confidence. The game had just gotten very interesting.
Short game: With most of the attention falling on McIlroy, Mickelson and Woods, Charl Schwartzel could play spoiler at Doral. He finished second to Ernie Els there in 2010, and is coming off a T5 at the Honda. Mahan led the Cadillac through 36 holes last year, and Dustin Johnson was the 54-hole leader. … Mahan said at his press conference Tuesday that he began working with a new mental coach, Jim Murphy, in January. … McIlroy will play with No. 2 Donald and No. 3 Lee Westwood for the first two rounds. Woods will play with Sergio Garcia and defending Cadillac champion Nick Watney. Adam Scott, Mahan and Mickelson make up the other high-wattage threesome . … Two-time champion Michael Bradley (2011, '09) headlines the opposite-field Puerto Rico Open at 7,526-yard, par-72 Trump International Golf Club. … Buoyed by the attendance of Woods, the Honda drew 161,700 spectators for the week, a 45 percent increase over a year ago and a more than 60 percent increase over 2010. "We couldn't be more excited about the tournament we just had or about the future," Honda executive director Ken Kennerly said. … The Nationwide tour heads to Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago for the Chile Classic, the third of 27 events on the schedule.