Tiger Woods is a student of golf, its history and its traditions. He cherishes the intricacies that make the game unlike any other.
Among the things he discovered long ago about the game is that there is always another lesson to be learned. The education of a golfer, no matter how talented and decorated, is never complete.
Woods got a putting tip on the eve of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship last week and executed it to perfection on his way to a 76th career PGA Tour victory at Trump Doral Golf Club and Resort. It was his 17th World Golf Championships title and the seventh time he won this particular tournament.
Woods is the PGA Tour’s first two-time winner this year – the first time in five years that he has two victories before the Masters Tournament. He has one more tournament scheduled before the Masters, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational March 21-24 at Bay Hill.
“Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good,” Woods said.
The significance of Bay Hill is that Woods, with a victory, can return to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking and arrive at Augusta National Golf Club once again as the No. 1 player. Woods has his good friend, Steve Stricker, to thank in part for his dominating performance at the Cadillac Championship. Woods wasn’t shy about saying so, either.
“Thank you to Steve for the putting lesson,” said Woods, who spent 45 minutes with Stricker, considered one of golf’s great putters, on the eve of the tournament.
Woods was outstanding on the greens of the Blue Monster. He made 27 birdies, one shy of his personal best. He needed just 74 putts through the first 54 holes and 100 putts for the entire championship, the lowest total of his PGA Tour career. He led by as many as five strokes and closed with a final-round 71 for a 19-under-par 269 total.
Ironically, it was Stricker who finished second to Woods, two strokes behind. Stricker has two runner-up finishes in three starts this year and he, too, will arrive at Augusta National as one of the favorites to win a Green Jacket despite his new, abbreviated playing schedule.
Among the putting issues discussed by Stricker and Woods were some of the basics, like posture, impact position and a relaxed grip. Woods, a four-time Masters champion and winner of 14 major championships, had no inhibitions about accepting advice from Stricker, one of his closest friends. They have often represented the United States as partners in international competition and regularly practice together on Tour.
“He can see the things that are off a little bit because he knows my stroke so well,” Woods said. “He just gave me a couple little things to talk about and, lo and behold, I started feeling just like I did at Torrey.
“Whatever he says, I’m going to do. He’s one of the best putters that has ever lived.”
Woods opened the United States portion of his Tour schedule with a victory at Torrey Pines in January at the Farmers Insurance Open. He’s now 2-for-4 in 2013.
“It's kind of the nature of our game,” Stricker said. “Older players have done it with me, and I'm now one of those older players I guess, and when somebody asks me for help, I tend to give it to them. Tiger and I have always talked about putting. He had me look at him again this week and some things clicked with him.”
Stricker said the thoughts and advice go in both directions.
“We've texted back and forth about feels with little wedge shots, putting,” Stricker said. “We've touched base when we haven't been on Tour together at the same time. We've talked over the phone, too. He’s the best player in the world, I could pick his brain all day long. He likes what I do putting and some of my wedge play, so he kind of picks my brain on that, too.”
“I am probably in a better spirit because I'm making more putts and now I know how he feels every day,” Woods said. “Yeah, it's kind of nice to make putts. No wonder (Stricker) is always in a good mood.”
The consensus of the strong field of contenders at Doral who tried unsuccessfully to keep pace with Woods is that his game looks solid in every area
“In this wind the last couple days, his ball flight control is pretty stunning, really, the way he flights his irons around,” said Graeme McDowell, who played the final 36 holes with Woods.
“His driver looks like it's a bit safe. He doesn't look like he's kind of got the 350‑bomb in him anymore that he maybe used to have. Everything is just under control off the tee. It's a cut and it's in play, and that seems to be the way he's learned how to get his game, get it in the fairway and then from there, we know how good he is.”
Woods said the work of the past couple of years with instructor Sean Foley has paid off.
“Those changes have been pretty much implemented,” Woods said. “We are just making fine tunes, each and every day you have little bitty adjustments here and there but the major overhauls are done and now I have more time to dedicate to my short game.”
And with some help from Stricker, Woods appears primed for a return to Augusta National where the challenges on the greens are unlike any other.