Planet Golf — 22 February 2012 by Bob Sherwin
Tiger’s early Match Play exit baffling

How do you figure Tiger Woods? That’s as much of a conundrum as to how the golf world now views Tiger Woods.

Quite uncharacteristic for the 14-time major champion, Woods was eliminated in the second round of WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson. He actually eliminated himself when he missed a 5 ½ foot putt on the 18th hole that would have tied his match with Nick Watney.

“We all know Tiger makes those…it’s definitely a little bit of a shock,” a stunned Watney told the Golf Channel just afterward. Watney’s a quality qolfer but not at the same talent level as Woods – or as Woods once was.

Woods has just landed his 184-yard approach shot inside a six-foot range that, for him, used to be ‘gimme’ the trophy. Now he’s missing the short ones with consistency. Four holes earlier he made another sensational tight approach then pushed the putt.

He had plenty of chances to put Watney away but couldn’t roll the ball. Shocking for a guy who once was considered the best match-play player ever. In this tournament – in which he has won three times – Woods has 33 match-play victories. The next closest is David Toms with 24.

His new Sean Foley-designed swing doesn’t appear to be the problem, although he is straying the ball a little more than with his former swing. It’s his putting that’s so painful.

Woods, winless last year in PGA-sanctioned events, is not only re-emerging with his new swing but also year removed from his old life of lurid tabloid-headline exploits. That plays into the current Tiger dynamics. He has been human-ized by his self-induced ordeal. He’s searching for the guy he once was and his competitors don’t seem to shrink anymore in his presence. He already has lost twice this year when leading (or sharing) the lead after the third round. He had been 48 of 52 in that situation.

His first-round opponent, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, had no problem riling him up by saying Woods was ‘beatable.’ Freakin’ Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. Trash talking. Woods beat him 1-up – but only after a late rally. Now they’re both beatable.

Woods seems to have enormous fan reaction whenever he delivers a dazzling shot but the audience is still mixed. We’ve all heard the reactions from people who hope he never wins again and that he never breaks Jack Nicklaus’ majors record of 18. They won’t forgive, as if it’s their prerogative, but clearly the number of people pulling against him has grown relative to the number who pull for him.

Don’t count the Golf Channel or NBC, which owns the broadcast rights to the Accenture, among those in the dislike column. Neither networks relishes seeing him gone by the weekend. He dominated the coverage and the post-match reaction even in a loss. Whether you like him or hate him, either way he’s a ratings generator.

He’s at the point where his game – as well as fan acceptance – is a work in progress.

Who’s No. 1? It’s wide open.

For years, the conversation over who’s No. 1 in the world never really came up. Tiger Woods was the No. 1 for more than five years, from June 12, 2005 until Oct. 31, 2010. That was a record 281 straight weeks – and a record 623 weeks overall. Since then three players have shared the top spot, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald.

Defending Accenture champion Donald, who finished in a tie for 56th in his first PGA Tour event a week ago, was bounced from the tournament in the first round Wednesday.

It means that the No. 1 spot again is open. It could come down to either Westwood or Rory McIlroy taking over. If one of those two guys wins this tournament, he would supplant Donald.

Donald would only hang on if someone else wins it. But the way he’s playing, his grasp is tentative.

American power

There are more Americans advancing to the round of 16 than anytime since 2006. The tournament began with 22 Americans and 42 international players from 14 countries. After round two, that gap has narrowed to nearly equal. There are now nine international players and seven Americans, Watney, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Hunter Mahan and Mark Wilson.

There will be at least two Americans moving on to the ‘elite eight’ because two matches feature a head-to-head American matchup, Stricker against Mahan and Johnson against Wilson.

February Lunacy?

Unlike the the NCAA Tournament where a No. 16 seed never has beaten a No. 1 seed, longshot upsets are commonplace in the Accenture (case in point – Donald). One reason is the seeds are pretty much arbitrary. The top players are given seeds commiserate with their wins and reputation but there is such a small gap between 1 and 64.

Anything can happen when you mix in the vagaries of the weather, the course, motivation and  momentum. Look at 48-year-old Miguel A. Jimenez, the No. 52 seed. He knocked off Keegan Bradley – last week’s Northern Trust winner – 2 and 1.

Three 50-plus (seeded players) have won this thing, No. 62 Kevin Sutherland in 2002, No. 55 Steve Stricker in 2001 and No. 52 Geoff Ogilvy in 2006.

Notes:

    • Kaymer, Jimenez, Westwood, John Senden, Matt Kuchar and Peter Hanson have not trailed this week.
    • For only the third time in the tournament’s history, three of four No. 1 seeds advanced to the third round, McIlroy (No. 2), Westwood (No. 3) and Kaymer (No. 1). Donald was No. 1 overall.
    • The youngest winner ever was Woods at 27 years, two months, two days. Final 16 competitors McIlroy, South Korea’s Sang-Moon Bae and Kaymer are all younger.
    • Steve Stricker, who turned 45 Thursday, could be the oldest. Or maybe Jimenez at 48. David Toms is the oldest winner when he won in 2005 at 38 years, one month and 23 days.
    • In 11 previous Accenture appearances, Westwood never advanced past the second round. This year he has not trailed in his two matches. He plays Watney.
    • There has been plenty of grumbling by the players over the severity of the greens at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Dove Mountain course. This has prompted whispers that the tournament could be moved to San Francisco’s Harding Park next year.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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