Lateral Hazard: Tiger Woods reclaims throne thanks to Steve Stricker's friendly putting advice

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

Well, if Tiger Woods is going to putt like that, no fair.

Like replays on a loop from earlier in his career, golf balls obediently and promptly disappeared from view when Tiger pulled back his putter, time and time again around Doral Golf Resort and Spa this past weekend. The result was another Tiger 54-hole lead, another Tiger march to victory, a 76th PGA Tour title, a fifth win in his last 19 starts and the continued staggering statistic that his career win percentage is 27 percent, best in history by a mile.

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Tiger Woods holds the Gene Sarazen Cup after winning the Cadillac Championship. (AP)

But this one was different than the previous four wins over the last year. This one was The Return of the Flatstick.

This is the thing, golf fans. This is the thing that's been missing for nearly a half-decade now, ever since his aura of invincibility was punctured, and his knees started breaking down, and he switched swing coaches yet again. His putter disappeared for years, spoken about in the hushed reverence one reserves for the things gone by, for beauty lost, probably never to be found again.

Until Steve Stricker turned Wednesday, March 6, 2013 into every Tour player's nightmare. It was the day "Stricks", as Tiger calls him, beckoned Tiger over for a putting lesson. Forty-five minutes of friendly advice and stance adjustment later, Tiger Woods turned into the early 2000s putting leviathan he once was.

And those thumbs you see toiling on a smart phone in the corner of the Doral clubhouse are Rory McIlroy's, sending Stricker a text: 'PUT A SOCK IN IT NEXT TIME, MAN. YOU AWAKENED THE BEAST. WITH FRIENDS LIKE YOU, WHO NEEDS ENEMIES? SIGNED, JUST A GUY WHO WANTS TO HANG ON TO THE NO. 1 RANKING FOR A FEW WEEKS LONGER.'

[Related: Tiger Woods’ win at Doral reminds us all he’s still the best]

The numbers don't lie. By using his putter only 100 times in 72 holes at Doral, Tiger set a personal record for fewest putts in a round. For a guy whose career is marked by brilliant, otherworldly putting, who was in his heyday to phenomenal putting what Donald Trump is to bad hair, that's a remarkable stat. He also made 27 birdies, second-best total of his career for a winning effort. That's not post-Escalade-into-a-tree Tiger golf. That's pre-Escalade-into-a-tree Tiger golf.

This prompts a couple of questions: One, can Tiger continue to repeat Stricker's advice as soon as Augusta National next month? And two, what in the name of crush-your-enemies-and-drink-their-blood competitiveness is Stricker doing, undermining the field by coaching up Tiger – particularly dubious because the runner-up at Doral was Stricker himself, by two measly strokes?

Stricker, being pretty much the nicest guy in the history of civilization, smiled and joked briefly about "kicking himself", then earnestly described how Tiger is a friend and it's important to help friends and he's glad Tiger won. Meanwhile, his wife, Nicki, who worked hard as Stricker's caddie all week, had some scratch paper and a pencil out, and was busy working out the numbers "$1.5 million" (Tiger's winner's share) and "$880,000" (Stricker's second-place share) to determine just how much her husband's Midwestern barn-raising-for-a-neighbor niceness cost not only the Stricker family vacation fund, but her take-home percentage as his looper.

[Related video: Highlights from Doral]

It's a great barroom debate: What is appropriate behavior in the highly-competitive, tailored slacks world of professional golf? Are you "doing the right thing" if you help a friend in need on the putting green, only to lose to said friend by two strokes at a World Golf Championship event? Or should you, when a friend approaches, start taking imaginary cell phone calls and holding up your index finger in the universal sign of 'I'd Love to Help You, But I'm Busy on This Imaginary Cell Phone Call Until You Go Away'?

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Tiger Woods gestures as his ball lands in the rough on the eighth fairway Sunday. (AP)

Even Tiger, asked if he would have lent Stricker the same advice the day before a WGC event, smiled and said: "I'd love to say I would have, but… and there's a 'but' in there… " Laughs all around. Tiger knows. He doesn't wear red on Sundays so he can help out thy fellow neighbor whose putter is balky. Tiger's version of "help" might be coughing the words "Sucks for you" into his hand as he walked by on his way to the first tee box.

Either way, the damage to the field is done. If Tiger Woods starts putting like Tiger Woods again, Katy bar the door. This is especially true at his "home" tracks, like Doral and his next start, Bay Hill. On The Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee intimated the oddsmakers would make Tiger a prohibitive favorite at Bay Hill next week, not unlike Alabama taking on a Division II football squad in early September.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

73-69-71-65 – 10-under 278, Rory McIlroy, tie-8th, World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship, TPC Blue Monster at Doral, Miami, Fla.

The old Chinese proverb "May you live in interesting times" seems written for Rory McIlroy's 2013 season, only it might read something like "Man, there's no telling where your golf season goes next."

[Watch: Stricker won't invoice Woods for coaching]

A Sunday 65? Very interesting. A surge to a top-10 finish? Very interesting. His first truly excellent round of golf with his Nike clubs? Very interesting. A press conference to start the week filled with honesty, humor, candor and general Rory-ness, leading to the golf media feeding from your palm? Very interesting. An awful 73 in Tiger's presence on Thursday, playing himself out of it before it even started? Very interesting.

And of course, the most interesting thing of all: He's now got to deal with Tiger's reborn putter, mucking up the works in his plans to be No. 1 in the world for eternity. Turns out "eternity" may mean two weeks – if Tiger wins at Bay Hill, he takes over No. 1.

That Tiger has five wins in his last 19 starts sort of obscures the fact that Rory has four wins in his last 19. If Rors can somehow take whatever worked on Sunday in that 65 and find some sort of common ground with his swing, his clubs and the pressure of the swoosh, we could be set for those golf course donnybrooks between Rory and Tiger at major championships we're all drooling for.

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Rory McIlroy watches his drive on the fifth hole Sunday. (Getty)

And there were encouraging signs. If you take McIlroy's final 54 holes at Doral, he finished only two strokes behind Tiger. Each day, his statistics improved – more fairways each day, more greens in regulation each day, fewer putts each day. Rory is trending in the right direction. Only problem is, we won't see him play golf in the next three weeks. Instead of building on this little bit of momentum, he's sticking with his plan to play in Houston on April 4-7, prior to the Masters.

OK, Rory. If you say so. But we'd like to see you get some reps in. More Rory is good Rory.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"I had to get healthy. I was playing not healthy, and hurt. Once I got healthy, a lot of positive things happened . . . and it's kind of nice to make putts. No wonder why Stricks is always in such a good mood." – Tiger Woods, post-round press conference, The Golf Channel.

Dare I say it was a somewhat expansive Tiger who talked to the Doral media? Don't get me wrong. He was not and will never be Stricker-like in his media dealings, will never see any value in giving of himself to the Fourth Estate.

[Related: See Tiger Woods' ball get stuck in palm tree]

But the topic of five wins in 19 starts and the sense of a true arrival back to his pre-Escalade-into-a-tree golf has brought Tiger some peace of mind, it appears. He wants to reminds us, and probably should, that as much as his image meltdown of 2009-10 hurt him, so did his knee surgeries and rehabs. It's a point I know I underrate in evaluating his game.

Someone asked him about how he thinks of wins at age 37, as opposed to his younger days when his father, Earl, was around, and Tiger didn't blow off the question. He acknowledged that his station in life is different, that with his father no longer alive, his own role as a parent takes shape. He called it, simply "the evolution of life," and said the wins are still sweet, but acknowledged that things do look differently through the prism of time, and aging.

[Also: Ridiculous hole-in-one at the Puerto Rico Open]

When asked about his "stress-free" wins at Torrey Pines and Doral this year, he flashed a bit of humor and said: "Stress-free? Did you see 18?", referencing his unusually weak third shot to the green that briefly flirted with water. Asked about holding on to another 54-hole lead for a win, his 51st out of 55, and his fourth in a row, his answer took him to the very essence of his being: he is a born winner, a competitor consumed with victory, and he gifted sports fans with another display of his legend. It's who he is, and what he does.

"I enjoy being there, in that position," he said. "It's why I prepare so hard."

There was something sort of timeless about it all: 2013, red shirt, Tiger winning . . . we're going on three decades of that now.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

While the easy choice for Mully of the Week is to tell Steve Stricker to NOT give Tiger the putting lesson – the better to serve his fellow PGA Tour brethren – I had my eye on Phil Mickelson at Doral, and was getting tickled at his front-nine run.

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Tiger Woods strokes a putt en route to his victory at the WGC Cadillac Championship. (USA Today)

Lefty was having a good week, not only in contention on Sunday, but fresh off a birdie from the cart path on Thursday, followed by a lesson to golf writers on how to play a ball off a cart path. Vintage Philly Mick.

And when he birdied the 8th hole Sunday, he was 3-under on his round, 16-under for the tournament and four back of Tiger. Granted, somewhat of a longshot to catch Tiger in an open-field tackle from that point, but Lefty has pelts on the wall at Doral, and Lefty can sort of smell the azaleas in a month, and Lefty could make Sunday super fun if he made a back-nine run and closed it to one or two strokes.

Alas. On the par-3 9th he had trouble holding the green, had to chip to about 10 feet and needed that to save par. I thought if he could make it, get a good par save on the books and make the turn, we might have a barnburner coming.

He missed the putt, bogeyed 9, fell five back and never threatened, playing the back nine in 1-over, finishing five back and tied-3rd.

So for a good ole Phil-Tiger Doral rivalry, let's go back out to that 9th green, let Phil have another look at that par save, maybe make it and keep things humming because it was time to . . . give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The Florida Swing continues at Innisbrook for the Tampa Bay Championship, but there will be no Tiger, no Phil, no Rory. There are six of the world's top 20 players, however, including Match Play champion Matt Kuchar, defending champion Luke Donald and Louis Oosthuizen, making only his fourth PGA Tour start of the year.

Steve Stricker will not play this week, as he is due to head home to Wisconsin and work on his new book, "How I Saved Tiger Woods' Putting, And Learned to Ignore Rory McIlroy's Angry Texts In the Meantime."

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