The Tiger Woods I used to know

Tiger Woods, at Pebble Beach on Feb. 12, is having trouble doing something he once mastered: making pressure putts. Allan Henry/US Presswire

This is a Tiger Woods I don't recognize, this Tiger Woods who gags 5-footers that could keep a match alive, as he did last week against Nick Watney at the World Match Play. The Tiger Woods I used to know would've sunk that putt the way a carpenter sinks a nail, without a thought, and the next three after it.

This is a Tiger Woods I can't fathom, this Tiger Woods who goes to Pebble two weeks before and lets his rival, Phil Mickelson, leave enough spike holes in his back to start a colander; who misses five putts of 5 feet or less on Sunday, including one on 18 no longer than a kielbasa. The Tiger Woods I used to know had a Sunday putter so hot you could brand heifers with it. Now, I'm surprised he doesn't get frostbite.

This is a Tiger Woods I never imagined, this Tiger Woods who stands over a putt like it's ticking, who talks now of "the putter release point" and other mechanical goop you usually hear from guys headed back to the Nationwide Tour. Tiger used to have parts of guys like that in his lower intestine.

But this is the Tiger Woods we have. And if this Tiger Woods ever hopes to catch Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors, he has to fix his putting. This, however, is like saying Baghdad needs to fix its bridges. His golf swing looks silky again, but right now, Woods is as far from his old putting self as Chaz Bono is from his old driver's license picture.

"That [Tiger] is not back yet," says putting guru Dave Pelz. "I don't know if he'll ever be back."

What happened? I have my guesses:

The Nike Theory

During the Tiger Sex Scandal, most companies fled Woods like Red Riding Hood. One that stuck with him? Nike. Not long after, at the 2010 British Open, Woods started using a Nike putter instead of the Scotty Cameron Titleist putter he'd won his 13 majors with. It was like Jim Bowie suddenly carrying a putty knife; B.B. King playing an oboe. Maybe Nike said, "We'll hang with you through all those pancake waitresses, but we don't want to see somebody else's putter next to your ball." Whatever. Since that day, Woods is 0-for-majors and winless on the PGA Tour.

"If I'm coaching Tiger right now," says Woods' old coach, Butch Harmon, "I'd take the Nike out of the bag and put the Scotty back in and see how good that looks in his hands."

Maybe it's in his contract, maybe it's out of loyalty, maybe it's because Tiger -- who is nothing if not stubborn -- refuses to admit he was wrong. But 100 guys out of 100 would've gone back to the Scotty two years ago. Hell, Arnold Palmer used to bring 12 putters to the putting green and pick a new one daily.

"Which is weird," says former tour star Peter Jacobsen, "because I think Nike would much rather see Tiger hoisting trophies over his head again than see their swoosh lined up next to his ball."

The Earl Theory

When you think about it, Tiger hasn't been golf's Mozart since his dad died in 2006. Earl knew which of Tiger's buttons to push, possibly because he'd installed them. They'd sit at dinner and talk about all the great putts he'd made that day, how he believed in his reads, how he saw them going in long before he'd struck them, just as the Green Beret psychologist had taught him.

Earl didn't even need to be with Tiger. At his first PGA Championship win, at Medinah in 1999, Tiger was standing over a tricky putt on the 17th hole on Sunday. As I wrote in Sports Illustrated in 2000: "I was in the hotel and I said to him, 'Tiger, this is a must-make putt. Now, we've been through it before. Trust your stroke. Trust your stroke.' And he made it. That night I said to him, 'I told you to [trust your stroke on] that putt at 17.' He said, 'I know, Pop. I heard you.'

That voice is now gone.

The Karma Theory

Great putting is like great writing -- it helps to have an uncluttered mind. When your life has come apart like bad knitting, as Tiger's has, you're up to your cheekbones in clutter.

A 6-year-old can make 4-footers all recess because he doesn't think about it. But if your mind is full of doubt and troubles and guilt, all those problems rattle around in your skull. These are known as The Demons. When the hole is looking like a Cheerio, The Demons will have you asking yourself why Golf hates you, why God hates you, why Luck hates you. Worse, you begin to wonder if maybe you deserve it.

In the year 2009 PFH (Pre Fire Hydrant), Woods ranked second in putting. This year, he's 175th.

"He's coming back from a pretty deep place," says Pelz, who has never worked with Woods. "Almost none of golf is mental. It's about your mind getting out of the way."

"He seems a long way from his unconscious right now," says Dave Stockton, who helps Mickelson and Rory McIlroy with putting. "He seems like he's thinking all the time, like he's trying. Putting is not about trying, it's the easiest thing we do in golf."

Not lately.

The Fun Theory

The Tiger I used to know laughed a lot more on the course. Laughed at himself sometimes when he'd miss an easy one, which was almost never. Now he laughs about as much as an Easter Island statue. Even makes are greeted with a look of dread reprieved for another hole.

"You look at [Tiger's] face and he doesn't look like he's having much fun," says Jacobsen. "You watch Rory McIlroy. He makes a putt and he looks like it's Halloween and he just got two large Butterfingers from the house down the street. ... That's not how Tiger looks. He looks like it's all a lot of work right now."

The Yips Theory

I hate to even broach this, but is it possible we're seeing the start of the yips?

"I wouldn't say the yips, no," says Harmon. "But I definitely see nerves. It started at Augusta last year, on the back nine. He had a chance to win and he suddenly started missing short putts. They weren't on line, they didn't touch the hole. It's understandable with everything he's been through off the course. I'm not making excuses for him. He brought that on himself. But his confidence just seems gone on the greens."

It's happened to great players before: Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan. They were never the same afterward.


The Time Theory

Tiger is fascinated with the golf swing, bored by the putting stroke. He's an incurable swing tinkerer, but he doesn't have any obsession with putting. Billy Casper used to wear out the carpet in his houses at night putting. Not Woods. He doesn't put in anywhere near the time on the putting green that he does on the driving range.

Woods often complains about "not getting the speed of the greens here" but is he out there enough? At the Match Play in Arizona last week, he played a grand total of nine practice holes.

If the worst part of your game is also the part you spend the least time working on, that's not a coincidence. That's a reason.

The Grooving a Mistake Theory

Woods used to have a beautiful swinging-gate-type stroke -- inside going back, inside going through -- like Ben Crenshaw's. Now he putts more straight back, straight through. That would be fine if it was working, but it's not.

Also "it looks as if he is trying to keep the putter shaft leaning forward like he does with his full swing," emails Hank Haney, Tiger's former swing coach, whose new book "The Big Miss" drops in late March. "When I taught Tiger, all I ever did with his putting was try and notice if he was doing anything out of his norm. Now Tiger has changed so much about his stroke that it seems like it would be hard to figure out what's wrong."

So what can Tiger and his putter do to dig themselves out of this quicksand? Well ...

1. Get help. Tiger has never hired a putting guru like Pelz or Stockton or … anybody. He talks to Steve Stricker a lot, but how can you trust somebody who's trying to beat you?

He's had no problem having three swing coaches. Why not try one putting coach?

"Because," says Pelz, "when you've spent most of your career having people tell you you're the greatest putter in golf history, you're probably not going to ask for help."

2. Get a psychologist. Plenty of players do it. Tiger should. Because if he's got The Demons, they need to be cleansed.

3. Get a belly putter. Tiger hates it, has campaigned against it. But desperate times call for desperate measures. If Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley can crush with one, why not?

"I think it would help him to practice with it," says Harmon, "because it forces you to take it back inside and release it through. Doesn't mean you have to play with it."

But why not? Does it cause warts?

4. Get nonchalant. "Phil is in a place right now where he doesn't care so much about results," says Stockton. "He's just rolling it and enjoying it. That's where Tiger needs to be. It's not about lessons or equipment. It's about just letting it go."

Uh, hello? Have you MET Tiger Woods? He's not big on letting go.

5. Get moving. Used to be, Tiger took two practice strokes, then his stance, then one last look, then fired. Now, he stares at it like Boris Spassky at a trapped queen. Sometimes he takes more than a full minute before he's ready.

"To me," says Harmon, "it looks like he's looking for something that isn't there."

Like himself?

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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.

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