Putting tip propels Tiger to Doral lead

DORAL, Fla. -- Now that he is a semi-retired golfer, Steve Stricker has time for other pursuits. Spending time with his family. Hunting. Fishing.

And working as Tiger Woods' putting coach?

The two joked about the idea on Thursday after Woods credited Stricker with helping him sort out a few things on the greens a day prior. Something clicked, as Woods rolled in nine birdie putts, four from longer than 15 feet, to take a share of the first-round lead at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

Among those just a stroke behind? Stricker.

It is another of those golf oddities that sees players trying to help each other one day, looking to beat each other the next. Woods, of course, is known for having stepped on necks and taken names over the years, intimidating opponents while inside the ropes.

Although he's not exactly known for it, Woods has given his share of advice over the years, too: a helpful tip, a word of encouragement. Although he declined to elaborate, Woods admitted that there has been some form of counseling going on as it relates to Rory McIlroy, whose game has yet to show No. 1 form this year.

"We've talked a little bit, yeah," Woods said.

While their conversation will remain between them, it was pretty obvious that Woods was intently working with Stricker on the Doral practice putting green on Wednesday afternoon at TPC Blue Monster. For more than 45 minutes, they altered Woods' posture and his stroke, Stricker checking him out from every angle.

"Well, whatever he says, I'm going to do," Woods said. "He's one of the best putters that's ever lived."

For his part, Stricker is a bit more sheepish about the idea. While at age 46 -- and playing a limited schedule -- he remains an excellent putter, trying to help Woods while standing on a putting green can be a bit, well, daunting.

"I always hate to interject anything with him," said Stricker, whose 67 had him in a four-way tie for sixth, a stroke behind Woods, Fredrick Jacobson, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and Bubba Watson.

"But he was open to it, and you don't want to screw a guy up either. But when I left him last night, he was really excited and it looked like he was rolling it really good then. You never know, you could hurt the guy."

Stricker has known Woods for more than 15 years. They have been partners in the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup. And being a good putter himself, Stricker see things.

So, from the technical aspect:

"His big swing gets into his setup of his putting stroke and he's been chipping a lot, so he gets way to the left," Stricker said. "And his grip was on a little strong and he was kind of dropping it back under and then trying to save it and turn it over. He actually had his hands behind the ball. Looked like he had a lot of loft on there when I was looking at it. I just tried to get him set up in a better position where he could feel like he could accelerate down through the line a little bit."

Got that?

Woods needed just 23 putts, which tied for first in the field. And that's despite a 3-putt and two other excellent birdie chances that he missed.

And yet, when the heat is on Sunday, Woods could be battling Stricker for the title, a couple of putts here or there being the difference between a big trophy and $1,575,000 in prize money.

"Yeah, it is kind of interesting, but it's the nature of our game," Stricker said. "I remember playing here one year with Jack [Nicklaus], it was one of those years where I wasn't playing very well. I got done and he's like, 'I'll meet you on the range.' He just took some time to help me out. Although we are competitors, we are friends.

"Sometimes you need another pair of eyes. Tiger, I'm sure, didn't feel any of those things that I saw, but I've watched him so much over the years, I saw right away. And he helps me out, too."

This is nothing new, and perhaps much more prevalent than you might expect. While it's true that players have swing coaches and trainers and all sorts of paid help at their disposal, having another view never hurts. And on pre-tournament days, this kind of banter fills the driving range air.

Woods hasn't been helping McIlroy in public, but he has seen the good and not so good. McIlroy has failed to break par in 2013 and shot 73 with six bogeys on Thursday. It was a continuation of the swing troubles that led him walking off the course a week ago at the Honda Classic.

When the Northern Irishman was on his way to player of the year honors on both the PGA and European tours at the end of 2012, Woods got to see a good bit of it up close through the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs. He has now played with him three times this year, including twice in Abu Dhabi, and witnessed scores of 75-75-73.

"I don't think he's quite drawing the ball like he used to," Woods said. "Maybe just a little defensive out there. And that happens, and we've all gone through stretches like this. It happened to him last year in the middle of the year [when McIlroy missed four cuts in five tournaments]. And he ended up all right at the end of the year.

"When you play golf for a very long time, you're going to have spells like this. You can't play well every week, even though you try."

Woods got into such a putting spell, saying his posture was off from when he won the Farmers Insurance Open at the end of January. That's why he was grinding on the putting green Wednesday. On Sunday at the Honda Classic, he had 33 putts and made just one out of eight attempts from 10 to 25 feet.

A few days later, with Stricker's help, Woods was seeing the line and rising to the top of the leaderboard.

"I think I'm going to have a contract with him because he's only going to play, what, five tournaments this year?" Woods joked. "I'll bring him out on his off weeks."

"I told him last night, if he put me on his payroll, I could play a little bit less," Stricker said.

At the very least, perhaps a commission is in order this week.