Freddie’s Not So Bad Pick

Are things finally looking up for Tiger Woods? His ball-striking in his last two Presidents Cup matches was impeccable. Photo copyright Icon SMI.

Tiger Woods didn’t exactly make Fred Couples look like he made a great move by using a captain’s pick on him for the Presidents Cup. But he at least made it look like a defensible move.

Woods’ 2-3 record was nothing to write home about, but it was the best of the four captain’s choices. Bill Haas went 1-3-1 for the U.S., Aaron Baddeley 1-3-1 for the Internationals, and Robert Allenby 0-4 for the Internationals. Apparently, Allenby’s victories in 1992 and 1993 at Royal Melbourne didn’t translate well nearly two decades later. I can’t come down too hard on Norman, though, since I said Allenby was a good pick.

I also said that Keegan Bradley should have been picked over Woods. In the end, it surely wouldn’t have mattered, as the U.S. won by 19-15 margin. It would have been nice for Bradley to get some experience in international competition. For Woods, it was nice to get in some “reps,” as he likes to say.

Woods’ overall record might have been lackluster, but his ball-striking in his final two matches was outstanding. In fact, in his Saturday afternoon four-ball match, it was flawless.

Under different circumstances—like a singles match with the Cup on the line, and with better putting—it might have been the stuff of legend. Woods hit 17 greens in regulation and putted from the fringe on the other one. He hit both par fives in two, meaning he hit the greens in one better than regulation. He also hit 12 of 15 fairways, a stat aided by the fact he didn’t need to hit many drivers at relatively short Royal Melbourne but still impressive.

He couldn’t hole much on the greens, though, and settled for a three-birdie, 15-par round (giving him the benefit of the doubt on some two-putts he didn’t need to complete). Woods only hit two approach shots inside 10 feet, but he did have eight birdie or eagle putts in the 11-to-18 foot range. He only made one of those, and endured a stretch of six holes in a row from the second through seventh where he missed from 15, 14, 11, 13, 9, and 18 feet. Woods made up for a little bit of that by holing a 34-footer on the 10th hole, but canceled it out with a costly three-putt par from 67 feet on the 15th hole (missing the second from eight-and-a-half feet) to enable K.T. Kim and Y.E. Yang to take a 1-up lead in a match that Woods and Dustin Johnson eventually lost by that margin.

Then in Sunday’s singles, Woods played the best golf of anyone, going 5-under for 15 holes in closing out Baddeley 4 and 3. This time he missed four greens, but he one of the par fives in two. So, for his last 33 holes, Woods reached the greens in just two less than regulation. He hit 23 of 27 fairways, including 11-for-12 in his singles match. And his putting came around on Sunday, as he made three birdie putts of 17 feet or more and two par-savers from 10 feet.

Woods’ 2-3 record can be partly attributed to lack of support from his partners. He didn’t play very well in Thursday’s lopsided foursomes loss, costing his team three holes with poor shots, but partner Steve Stricker played worse, and opponents Adam Scott and K.J. Choi would have been tough to beat anyway.

Friday’s four-ball was a 1-up defeat to Baddeley and Jason Day where Woods’ likely stroke-play score would have been even par on a very tough day for scoring, while partner Johnson was headed for 5- or 6-over (giving him about half of the 6- to 8-foot putts he didn’t have to hole—and that’s being generous the way Johnson putted for the week). In Saturday’s four-ball defeat, Johnson only helped on one hole. Johnson did team up fairly equally with Woods in a Saturday foursomes win over Scott and Choi.

While I’m not one who thinks that Couples chose Woods for this reason—nor should he have—it has to be said that Tiger added sizzle to an event held halfway around the globe against an International team that hasn’t defeated the U.S. since 1998.

It also served to whet the appetite for a possible long-delayed Woods comeback in 2012, if not to dominance at least to winning again.

Of course, we were saying the same thing after his Ryder Cup singles beat-down of Francesco Molinari in 2010. That didn’t work out so well. It was partly due to injury, but Woods wasn’t exactly a world-beater in his early-season 2011 tournaments before he was derailed at the Masters.

Two tournaments in Australia don’t tell much of a tale, but Woods’ swing and demeanor both look better than they have in a while and his putting is there on certain days. The thing he’s not doing now is stringing four good rounds together.

At the Australian Open, his first, second, and fourth rounds were good enough to win, but he put up a stinker in the third round. It seems weird to compare Woods to an inexperienced rookie, but that’s almost what it was like as he didn’t seem ready to handle the situation of holding the 36-hole lead as he got on the bogey train early in the third round. At the Presidents Cup, it was a slow start followed by a fast finish.

Dare we say that Woods appears “close”? Close to something good, anyway, though it’s hard to predict just what. We don’t know the upside potential of this version of Woods yet.

Note: Wouldn’t it have been a perverse pleasure if Phil Mickelson and Jason Day had been matched in the singles? Mickelson’s likely stroke-play score would have been 6-over for the first five holes of his loss to Adam Scott, while Day would have been 9-over for the first nine of his loss to Hunter Mahan.

Mickelson-Day would have been a glamour match-up that would have degenerated into a battle of who wanted to lose more, though they did both improve on the back nine. They would have halved three holes with bogeys on the front nine, and Day would have won one with a bogey.

Here’s how it would have gone: Day goes three up through five thanks to his pars on the second and fifth and bogey on the third. Mickelson wins the sixth and seventh with a birdie and a par, Day putting the ball in his pocket before the double bogeys he was headed toward, and Phil squares the match with a par at the ninth.

Day wins the 11th with a birdie, loses the 13th with a bogey, and wins the 14th with a birdie to go 1 up. A Mickelson birdie at 15 squares it as Day picks up before making a bogey (Mickelson was 6-over and Day 10-over through that point, but they would have won the same number of holes).

We can’t project after that, because Day’s match ended after 15 holes. But Mickelson’s birdie at 16 and par at 17 probably would have put him 1 up or maybe won him the match.

Day, incidentally, was a big disappointment with a 1-3-1 record which was largely deserved based on his play. That points up a big problem with the International squad—they don’t have the kind of strength at the top they had when Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, (a little earlier) Greg Norman, and Nick Price were in their heyday. Scott and Day were the Internationals’ two highest-ranked players in the world ranking (7 and 8), but neither is a real heavyweight.

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