Putting lands Park in the driver’s seat at Kraft, while Tiger will ride his flat stick to victory at the Masters

Inbee Park cruised to her second major victory Sunday at the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship on the strength of her putting. If Tiger Woods is to follow Park’s lead and become the winner of the men’s first grand slam event of the season this week in Augusta, he’ll do so because his flat stick is as rejuvenated as his overall game and health.

“I believe the gap between Tiger and the next best guy may be the size of the Grand Canyon again if he…continues to putt [as he has this year],” ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said during a pre-Masters conference call with reporters last week.

Since his putting lesson with old friend Steve Stricker last month, Woods has been lighting up the greens with the blazing confidence and aggression of his younger self.

But more on that later, as Park’s putting prowess deserves scrutiny and kudos — which renowned instructor Suzy Whaley provided after the 24-year-old from South Korea chalked up a four-shot win at Dinah Shore’s old stomping grounds that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

Whaley, PGA teaching professional at the TPC of River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., advised PGA.com readers they should focus not on Park’s “not for everyone” swing, but rather on the way she employed the shortest club in her bag.

“Her putting is a different matter,” said Whaley, who noted that no one who follows women’s golf would be stunned to learn that Park finished first in putting for the week. With an average of 28 putts per round for the past two seasons, Whaley raved that Park’s putting stroke was “as rhythmic as rushing water” and absolutely consistent — “a thing of beauty.”

The key to Park’s success on the greens was total relaxation in her arms and shoulders as she stood over the golf ball.

“If you were to walk up and grab her putter at address,” Whaley said, “you could pull it out of her hands because of how loosely she holds it.”

Park’s wizardry with the putter (she birdied the first two holes in Sunday’s finale to leave the rest of the field in her dust early on) was par for the course to her opponents.

“I’ve seen Inbee do this before,” top-ranked Stacy Lewis told reporters after finishing T32 but retaining her No. 1 ranking. “I played with her at [the Evian Masters] last year when she had, I think, 22 or 23 putts in the final round.

“When she rolls it, you can’t beat her,” Lewis said of Park, who leapfrogged Yani Tseng (T48) into second place in the Rolex Rankings. “She’s the best putter on tour.”

That’s what they’re saying about Woods these days as well.

Tiger, who ranked in the top 10 of the PGA Tour’s strokes gained-putting stat four times between 2004 and 2008, is back on top following injuries and the aftermath of his private life going very public. With three tour wins heading into the Masters, seemingly gone are the inexplicably missed short putts, like the five-footer for eagle on the 15th hole in the final round of the 2011 Masters.

“It was a shortish putt…that would have grabbed the lead, and he missed it, and he flinched on that putt,” Azinger said. “We all saw it.”

Instead, Woods is rolling the ball as well — if not better — than ever, and he’s either draining them or just burning the edges with his Nike One Tour D. The difference between the post-Thanksgiving night 2009 Woods and now is self-assurance that Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open winner who’ll join Azinger in the ESPN booth this week, observed before the session with Stricker.

“I thought even in San Diego [at January’s Farmers Insurance Open, Woods’ first W of the year] we saw Tiger much more confident with his putter before any of these lessons. I thought we saw a Tiger like we saw five or six years ago,” North said.

“He’s doing that better now, and it looks like he’s more comfortable,” North noted. “It looks like he’s got a lot of confidence, and you put all that together, and you’d better watch out.”

North received no argument from Azinger on his prognostication.

“If Tiger plays well, what does it matter what the other ones do?” Azinger asked rhetorically. “That’s the way I feel about this week.”

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