His Rock Won't Always Roll
Tiger Woods had the best putting week of his life during the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. On skinned, crusty greens with severe slope and confounding break, he didn't three-putt once, was rock solid from inside six feet and made a number of crucial par saves that he called the key to his 15-stroke victory. Even though Woods hit seven more greens (51) than anyone else, he tied for sixth in total putts (110).
Nevertheless, putting expert Dave Pelz, unlike many of the players left in the 24-year-old's backwash at Pebble, isn't ready to call Woods a flat-stick virtuoso. "Putting is still Tiger's biggest weakness," Pelz says. "If you accept that since turning pro Tiger has improved his ball striking and shotmaking 100 percent, I'd say he's only improved his putting about 50 percent. No question he has become more consistent. He's always been great when he's on, and now his bad days aren't so bad. But he can get significantly better on the greens."
Woods's pro career has been peppered with flurries of erratic short putting distinguished by power lip-outs and failed slam dunks that leave even longer putts coming back. His approach is still more jackhammer operator than fly-fisherman.
Pelz, whose new book, Dave Pelz's Putting Bible, is probably the most comprehensive study of putting ever written, thinks Woods's grip, posture and alignment are excellent, as are the mechanics of a pendulum stroke that stays low to the ground. Says Pelz, "He has grooved his impact so that he hits really solid putts."
Pelz believes that Woods's problems have to do with mindset. "Tiger has a very strong mind, which is what gives him that rare ability to pull off shots under pressure," he says. "It's one of his greatest gifts, but on the greens it tends to make him force things. Instead of focusing on the right speed—which I contend is four times more important than line—he tries to jam the ball into the hole, and that's when he is cutting down his percentages. When he misses a few early in a round, he tries harder, and things tend to get worse."
A manifestation of Woods's approach is tension in his forearms and grip, something Pelz says the great putters avoid. "You can see the tendons in Tiger's arms flexing," says Pelz. "It makes him tight rather than flowing. The best putters are softer."
As a model, Pelz points to Loren Roberts, the vaunted Boss of the Moss, whose syrupy stroke and ability to have putts the at the hole are the envy of his peers. "Loren is soft and rhythmic," says Pelz, "and he takes the approach that he's going to make the best putt he can and accept what happens. He doesn't try to force it. I know Tiger has won 13 tournaments in the last two years, but if Loren Roberts had been putting for him, he would have won 20 or 25."
Pelz also believes that Woods can improve his skills around the green. "He's fantastic with the flop shot, especially out of high grass," says Pelz, "but Tiger relies on it a little too much. I'd like to see him develop more variety in his short game as well as more of the softness that's going to help his putting."
Still, Pelz says that Woods, under the direction of Butch Harmon, is on the right path. He liked the adjustment Woods made before the Open—gripping the putter higher up the shaft to allow the head to swing more easily. "His arms and even his facial muscles looked more relaxed at Pebble," says Pelz. "Tiger's been burned enough times lipping out that he's backing off and not trying as hard to make every short putt straight. He's not quite there yet with the proper speed, but he's much, much closer.