For Tiger Woods, it's all about the putter

March, 6, 2012
There might not be a bigger buzz around a non-major this year than what we will see in the coming days leading up to the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

Each of the top 50 players in the current Official World Golf Ranking is in this week's field -- the first time that has happened since last year's Masters. It's just the fifth time we've seen that happen over the past five years.

Trivia question

Tiger Woods has never finished outside the top-10 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Who holds the PGA Tour record for most top-10 finishes in a season? (Answer below)

And after all, many of the best players in the world seem to be collectively hitting their stride right now. Consider this:

• New world No. 1 Rory McIlroy has three victories and 11 top-five finishes in his past 12 starts around the world.

Phil Mickelson is back after finishing with a win and losing in a playoff in consecutive weeks at Pebble Beach and Riviera.

Hunter Mahan made 35 birdies in his victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play two weeks ago, 11 more than anyone else in the field. Twelve of them came in two matches Sunday.

Lee Westwood hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation and didn't miss a putt under 10 feet Sunday at the Honda Classic en route to a sparkling 63.

Oh, and a 14-time major champion shot the lowest final-round score of his career, nearly coming from 9 shots back to break a more than two-year PGA Tour winless streak.

Whether you're rooting for Tiger Woods to return to the winner's circle or not, it's indisputable that his presence on a leaderboard makes a tournament more interesting. All the numbers -- both the historic and current -- say Woods will be in the mix this weekend, as well.

In 11 career starts in the event now known as the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Tiger has won six times and never finished out of the top 10. In all, he's won three times at this week's venue, Doral -- once in this tournament, and twice at the Ford Championship.

Only two players have won a single event more in PGA Tour history -- Woods himself at the WGC-Bridgestone (seven wins), and Sam Snead, who won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times.

But it's not just Tiger's remarkable history in this tournament that has him trending toward moving back into the winner's circle.

Over the weekend at the Honda Classic, Woods missed just three putts inside 10 feet, making 90.6 percent of them. Tiger's "strokes gained -- putting" (a measurement of how many strokes a player gains on the rest of the field on the green) number was a combined plus-4.63 on Saturday and Sunday.

In his previous three stroke-play rounds -- Thursday and Friday at Honda, and in the final round at Pebble Beach -- Woods missed 10 putts within 10 feet. His combined strokes gained -- putting in that span? An awful minus-7.58.

Tiger's putting stroke isn't the only thing he's finding. In each of his past four PGA Tour starts, Tiger's field ranking in greens in regulation has gone up. Tiger hit just 20 of 36 greens at last summer's PGA Championship. Since then, in his last three PGA Tour stroke-play events, his field ranks in GIR have been T-43, T-9 and last week T-3.

Total driving is the sum of a player's PGA Tour ranks in driving distance and driving accuracy. Woods is currently leading the PGA Tour in the statistic (granted, it's a tiny sample size so far). Woods has only led the tour in total driving once, in 2000. Since then, he's never ranked higher than 11th for an entire season, and he's only been ranked in the top 40 three times.

Should Woods end his victory drought this week at Doral, it would be fitting that it comes in a WGC event. Tiger has 16 WGC titles in his career, 13 more than any other player. Geoff Ogilvy is second on that list with three wins.

Of course, until he finishes an event lifting a trophy again, the two words most associated with Woods' game will remain "drought" and "doubt."

With his victory Sunday, Rory McIlroy became the second-youngest player to ascend to the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking. The only player to get there at a younger age was Tiger Woods, who was one year and five months younger than McIlroy currently is when he got there in 1997.

Though every aspect of his game was impressive last week, Rory can give the lion's share of the credit for the win to his putter.

Trivia answer

Question: Tiger Woods has never finished outside the top-10 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Who holds the PGA Tour record for most top-10 finishes in a season?

Answer: Harold "Jug" McSpaden with 31 top-10 finishes in 1945.

McIlroy was 16-for-16 on putts within 10 feet Sunday, and for the weekend, he was a remarkable 30-for-31. Rory's strokes gained--putting number for the past two rounds was plus-5.05. In Rounds 3 and 4 combined, he made more than 166 feet worth of putts.

Rory also threw his performance in 2011 at "The Bear Trap" out the window. In last year's Honda Classic, McIlroy was 7 over for the week on holes 15 through 17.

En route to victory last week, McIlroy played 15 through 17 at PGA National Champion Course in 3-under and bogey-free. Before McIlroy, no tournament winner had gone through "The Trap" all week without carding a bogey.

Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to





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