It is one of the oddities of the professional golf world. When players are questioned after a poor or indifferent round, they invariably point the finger at the putter. It’s as if putting isn’t really a skill, even though every player desperately hopes for mastery.
The very first time I covered a major championship, I visited post-opening round with a Hall of Fame golfer I had been assigned to follow. His opening 73 was not a disaster, but when I asked about his day, he said he just couldn’t get anything going on the greens. I responded by asking since he missed nearly half the greens, wasn’t he a little harsh on the flat stick not bailing him out from a mediocre tee-to-green performance? He never tried to hide his game from me again.
This past week, as the return of Tiger Woods opened a new comeback chapter at the Wells Fargo Championship, the 41-year-old recounted after every round how well he played tee to green without ever figuring out how to adjust to slow green speeds. After a final-day 74, his first birdie-free round in a non-major in almost four years, he told CBS Sports his putter was his Achilles heel. “I made nothing. And the chances I did have, I missed them all. It was just a bad week.”
Woods has always been more effective on surfaces that score high on the Stimpmeter. His first missed cut at a major came at Winged Foot in 2006, and after both rounds he moaned about slow surfaces he didn’t prepare for in a U.S. Open. In contrast, his early starts in 2018 were marked by putting that seemed to turn errant play into contending positions. To his credit, Woods pointed to his short game as propping him up early in his return to tournament golf.
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But if swift greens are his elixir, the fastest greens he has seen to date weren’t his remedy. At Augusta, the ultimate racetrack greens on Tour, Woods trailed Masters winner Patrick Reed by 13 strokes.
The PGA Tour was one of the first professional sports to quantify play in detail when they introduced ShotLink and refined interpretation of the numbers in recent years with Stroked Gained figures. At Quail Hollow, the Strokes Gained Putting stats for Woods showed him 72nd in the field, with only the third round a positive day on the greens.
Those raw numbers belie information similar to what my Hall of Famer tried to sell me years ago. While Tiger racked up a high percentage of GIR, it was not from positions in the fairway where proximity to the hole was likely to be favorable. Of 56 attempts at hitting the fairway, Woods was successful only 25 times, meaning his iron play was stressed better than half the time.
Contrast that with tournament winner Jason Day.
In posting his second win of the season, the Australian was only two fairways better than Woods and a dismal 6/14 on Sunday. He wasn’t as efficient from the rough as Tiger, with 10 fewer GIR. What Day did do was dial in a solution to the slower putting surfaces good enough to let him make up a little over eight shots on the field, ranking second overall for the week.
Day’s accuracy from the tee at Quail Hollow was down from his season’s average. His greens hit was below as well. Where Day played to his 2018 profile is with the putter in his hands, particularly from close range. In 177 attempts from five feet or closer this season, Day has yet to miss a putt. He ranks number one on Tour from 10 feet and in. It is not a coincidence that Day has excelled this year on the greens. He realized last year, when he finished 138th from five feet or closer, that he needed improvement, and in addition to gaining a healthy body and mind for this year, he carried in his bag an eraser club that proved the difference at Wells Fargo.
“I had no idea where the ball was going off the tee. I missed a lot of fairways and I missed a lot of greens but my short game stood the test,” he said afterwards.
Woods says he is looking forward to The Players Championship and greens at the TPC Sawgrass that he has learned over the years. Day said he would enjoy his victory in Charlotte but show up in Florida knowing what he needed to work on, not hide behind.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.