It all comes back to the putter for Tiger

MARANA, Ariz. -- As Tiger Woods looked over his 5-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to send his second-round match against Nick Watney into extra holes, Woods' swing instructor, Sean Foley, told me how proud he was to see his student hitting the ball so well.

Tiger had come a long way since they first started working together at the 2010 PGA Championship. Woods' knee is strong enough for him to hone his new golf swing on the driving range.

Now Foley was waiting for Tiger to make a short putt at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. The golf swing was fine. On Thursday, the 36-year-old 14-time major winner had a wonderful round of ballstriking. He matched his younger counterpart, 30-year-old Watney, shot for shot. On several holes their drives of more than 330 yards in the high altitude settled within a few yards of one another.

If you love hearing that beautiful flush sound of the perfectly struck iron shot or seeing the drive that climbs four or five stories before it lands softly in the fairway, this was your match. But it wasn't one for great putting. Watney missed his share of putts, but Tiger's misses cost him a chance at his fourth Match Play title.

The 5-footer at the 18th hole was like nearly all the other putts he had missed over the last two days at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain. He missed it right. After his narrow escape on Wednesday against Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Woods complained that he couldn't read putts on the grainy bentgrass greens. But after Watney beat him 1 up on Thursday, Tiger added a glitch in his putting stroke to his explanation for his putting.

The short version of his dissertation on the putting stroke is that he was blocking all his putts right. He said that he was taking the putter back shut and the ball was either going left or he was blocking it right. The putt at 18 was a perfect example, he said, of the putter going back slightly shut.

"I've always told you guys, I need to feel ... the toe of my putter swings a lot, it has a lot of movement to it, it has none right now," Tiger said. "I need to go back and work on that."

Tiger has overcome the injuries, the swing changes and the breakup of his marriage. But how will he handle the delicacy of his putter? How will he make sure that it doesn't keep him from breaking Jack's record of 18 majors?

Every player had to putt through the grainy greens this week at Dove Mountain. On Thursday, when Tiger wasn't complaining about the greens, he was fussing about the wind: the element that has been with the game from its very beginning. It seemed to infuriate him every time the wind switched on him. But not all the players share his views.

"The greens are OK. I feel pretty comfortable reading them. It's very obvious," said Rory McIlroy, who will meet Miguel Angel Jimenez in the third round on Friday. "The green just basically goes with the slopes, so if you have a right-to-left putt and it's a bit dark from one side, you just give it a little more."

The only thing obvious right now to Tiger is that he's struggling with his putter. He missed a chance at both Pebble Beach and Abu Dhabi because of his flatstick. And it let him down on Thursday against Watney.

When Tiger missed that 5-footer on the 18th, Sean Foley stood in disbelief, like the rest of the gallery. Tiger always makes the clutch putt. But those days might have come to an end. This next phase of his self-discovery might center on how many 5-footers he can make. And through that process he might uncover that for all his body sculpting and obsession with detail about wind changes and the golf swing, everything in the game still boils down to making putts.

It used to not matter where Tiger hit the golf ball, because he could always make up for it with a saving putt. He was able to win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg because he made some amazing putts. From Butch Harmon to Hank Haney to Foley, the golf swing has been his unyielding obsession as a professional. But until he can find the magic again on the greens, he'll have to patch together other parts of his game to lead him to victory.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.