- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

Golf’s season of major discontent finished on a sublimely satisfying note. Though it wasn’t quite enough to overwhelm the taste of four sour Grand Slam finishes, the Tiger and Phil Show at the Tour Championship brought down the metaphorical gavel on a year of major madness, restoring a sense of current order and future promise at the game’s ultimate level.

As if the result at East Lake had been determined by popular vote instead of competitive play, the world’s top two players swapped shots on Sunday in Atlanta. Phil Mickelson won the battle, posting a stunning 131 on the weekend to return from emotional hibernation to claim his first Tour Championship. Tiger Woods won the war, finishing three strokes back to clinch the FedEx Cup for the second time in its turbulent, three-year existence.

Ratings, smiles and congratulatory handshakes were up and a season of Lucas Glovers, Stewart Cinks and Y.E. Yangs was virtually forgotten as golf’s power pairing stood together in the winner’s circle. Hal Sutton might have described it as a scene as strong as new rope.

“Had I put myself in a position where we had the entire FedEx Cup on the line coming down the stretch, that would have been even more exciting. But I felt like the day turned out well,” Mickelson said after beating Woods to earn his 37th PGA Tour title. “It means a lot to finish the year off on such a good note.”

It was an unexpected feel-good finish for Mickelson, who had recorded just one top-10 finish since his wife, Amy, and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer in May. While acknowledging the toll that had taken on his family, Mickelson refused to blame his disappointing season on that personal crisis, pointing instead to his poor putting.

He addressed that issue two weeks ago in a three-hour session with Dave Stockton, a maestro with the blade during his lengthy career. Leaning on Stockton’s advice that he return to his forward-press putting style, Lefty led the field in putting and heads into the Presidents Cup (Oct. 8-11) and the offseason feeling confident about 2010.

“I’m excited to get 2009 behind me,” said Mickelson, reiterating the positive prognoses for both his wife and mother. “I’m excited about this offseason, to be able to spend more time doing fun things, vacations, what have you, with Amy and the kids. And I’m excited about where my golf game is headed. … I’m excited about what 2010 will bring.”

Woods wasn’t delighted with Sunday’s runner-up finish, but he repeated his positive feelings about a season in which he returned from ACL reconstruction in his left knee to move within two victories of catching Jack Nicklaus (73) for second on the PGA Tour’s all-time win list.

“[A year ago at this time,] I was still another couple months away before I kind of felt somewhat human again,” Woods said. “To win the FedEx Cup and to be as consistent as I have been all year is something that I’m very proud of. … There’s so many unknowns at the beginning of the season, and to play as consistently as I have - I think it’s nine top-twos this year - I certainly wouldn’t have expected that going into my first event.”

Though Woods did not win a major this season and in fact lost his first Slam from the 54-hole major pole to Yang at the PGA Championship, it would be ludicrous to suggest his comeback performance was anything less than a rousing success. In 16 stroke-play starts, Woods notched six victories and 14 top-10 finishes while posting a scoring average of 68.05, the fourth-best of his remarkable 14-year career. He’s a lock to win his 10th Jack Nicklaus Trophy as the tour’s player of the year.

The frightening reality for his peers, however, is that Woods was far from his best in 2009. While his putting woes in the majors have been well documented, a closer look at the stats shows Woods wasn’t himself with the blade all year.

Among Tiger’s ShotLink statistics, one number leaps off the screen: Woods converted just 13.1 percent of his putting opportunities between 15 and 25 feet this season, ranking 154th on the PGA Tour. A year ago, Woods ranked first in the category, making 23.9 percent of those midrange opportunities. Though ShotLink did not keep such a stat before 2008, it has often been said that no player in history has missed fewer five-footers or made more 20-footers. That wasn’t true this season, but it has been throughout his career. Once those bombs start falling again - and they will - watch out.

Tiger’s poor putting, much like 2009’s major madness, is an anomaly. With next season’s U.S. Open and British Open slated for Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, Woods is more likely to make a Grand Slam run than finish winless in the majors in 2010.

Let the offseason speculation begin.

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