PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Tiger Woods might long for the day when all anyone questioned was his swing.
Because until now, no one ever doubted his putting.
But as Woods begins his road to the Masters this week at the Honda Classic, scrutiny has shifted from his new swing to what used to be the most reliable part of his game.
Poised to make a run at Pebble Beach, Woods badly missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the second hole and missed from 3 feet for par on the seventh hole just as Phil Mickelson was pulling away. Woods three-putted the last hole for a 75.
"I could not get comfortable where I could see my lines," he said. "I couldn't get the putter to swing."
Last week at the Match Play Championship, despite missing two birdie putts inside 10 feet on the back nine as he tried to rally, Woods had a birdie putt from just outside 5 feet on the 18th hole to extend his second-round match against Nick Watney.
The putt never even touched the hole.
"I should be able to fix it in a day," Woods said.
Players help each other all the time, so it should not be unusual that twice in the last three months, Woods has sought advice from Steve Stricker. The tip at the Presidents Cup was to release the blade. They played nine holes of a practice round Tuesday at Dove Mountain, and Stricker noticed the club was too shut going back, which Woods attributed to his missed putt against Watney.
But ask yourself this: When does Woods take advice from anybody — even Stricker — when it comes to his putting?
This is the guy on everyone's list of the game's best putters. No one from his generation made more clutch putts.
There was that 6-foot birdie putt to force a playoff at the PGA Championship in 2000 during his sweep of the majors. The 15-foot putt in the dark at the Presidents Cup in South Africa. And perhaps the biggest one of all, the 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at Torrey Pines that got Woods and his shattered leg into a playoff at the U.S. Open.
To watch a replay in slow motion of the ball bouncing toward the cup and diving into the right corner, it had no business going in except that it was Woods. The shortest club in his bag wasn't a putter, it was a magic wand.
Maybe it's as simple as karma.
For those suggesting he go back to the Scotty Cameron putter that brought him 13 majors, that's not the solution. He was missing just as many putts with his old putter since coming back from the crisis in his personal life.
It would be foolish to jump to conclusions about Woods. He is capable of far more than anyone else, proof of that coming from his 71 wins on the PGA Tour. Winning at Honda or Doral might be enough to empty his head of doubts. A win at the Masters, which is more about creativity than technique, changes everything.
Woods can do just about anything with his swing — this is the fourth change he has made in 15 years.
He can't get by as easily without good putting.
Woods spent most of 1998 overhauling his swing under Butch Harmon. He still managed two wins, four runner-up finishes and he was out of the top 10 only eight times in 24 tournaments around the world.
He revamped his swing again in 2004 under Hank Haney and still contended. Woods won twice that year, was runner-up three times and finished out of the top 10 only five times in 21 tournaments.
The difference? He was still making putts.
He's no longer making as many.
"Stevie (Williams) used to keep all his stats," Haney said. "If he didn't three-putt, he would win 85 percent of the time. If he made his normal amount of putts, he would usually win. And if he made a bunch of them, he would win by six or eight. Now it looks to me like he has to make a bunch to win by a couple, which is what everybody else does."
That has been the biggest difference about Woods the last two years — he looks like everybody else.
It's difficult to compare his results with the latest swing change because of the circumstances. He had a four-month layoff in 2010 after being exposed for cheating on his wife. And as it relates to golf, injuries kept him from making quicker progress.
Since returning fully healthy at Firestone last August, Woods won the Chevron World Challenge (with birdies on the last two holes). He lost the 36-hole lead and finished third at the Australian Open, and he lost a share of the 54-hole lead with Robert Rock and tied for third in Abu Dhabi. He finished out of the top 10 in his other five events.
Woods never made every big putt, even if he made it look that way.
Perhaps the biggest putt he ever missed was a 15-footer on the final hole of the second round in the 2005 Byron Nelson Classic, which caused him to miss the cut for the first time in seven years and ended one of the greatest streaks in golf. He missed key putts while contending for U.S. Opens at Pinehurst and Oakmont. That stuff even happened to Jack Nicklaus.
But when he's not winning as much — or at all — people tend to remember the misses. The question is how much Woods is thinking about them. His head used to be loaded with memories of clutch putts. He has those two birdies at Sherwood three months ago when he won, and that's about it. In a tour-approved event, when was the last big putt Woods made? Certainly not at Augusta last year, when he was tied for the lead at the turn and shot 36 on the back nine.
Is it an easy fix? Woods said it would only take one day.
Or is the problem between the ears?
All that can be certain is that his putting is getting a lot of attention. Not because of the putts he makes, but the putts he misses.