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Tiger Woods Divorces Putter before British Open

This column was written by CBSSports.com senior writer Steve Elling

The priciest marriage in golf history is over.

No, we're not talking about Tiger Woods and the mother of his two children, the subject of many saucy U.K. tabloid stories over the past few weeks, including some assertions that a divorce has already been finalized, with a nine-figure settlement.

In purely between-the-ropes terms, this news nugget has a bigger financial impact.

When Woods sauntered onto the grounds of the Old Course at St. Andrews on Tuesday, he had even more eyebrow-raising news for those who have followed the arc of his career and know the significance of the words he casually dropped -- he's severed ties with a team member that he once characterized as "invaluable, irreplaceable. You can't put a dollar value on it."

His putter, a Scotty Cameron magic wand he has used for parts of 12 incomprehensibly good years, has been benched for a new Nike Method model he believes will better help him solve the slow greens this week at the British Open.

No question, it's been a rough year. He hasn't won in six starts, his longest drought to open a season since 1998. But is there madness to this Method?

Bad analogy, given the timing and particulars of his particulars of his personal life at the moment, but when asked if benching his moneymaker was tantamount to kicking out a member of the family, plenty of folks winced and giggled. But consider this:

He's been a devotee of the putter for 12 years, twice as long as his marriage to Elin, and never strayed once in that entire span. Though, apparently, the thought crossed the collective mind of Woods and caddie Steve Williams, especially as he has struggled on the greens over the recent past.

"That's something Stevie and I have been talking about over the years together, is what can I do on slower greens?" Woods explained Tuesday. "I always seem to struggle on them and can't wait to get to the fastest greens that we play on tour."

For those who have watched Woods over the years, and know his reverential attachment to the Scotty Cameron Newport 2 model he has used since mid-1999, he might as well have said he intended to swim back to Orlando when the tournament ends. He calls it his "gamer" and it is unquestionably the most valuable piece of sports merchandise on the planet.

Get ready to spit out your oatmeal, but he's won $87.5 million in official PGA Tour money with the putter. Plus all but eight of his 71 U.S. wins and 13 of his 14 Grand Slam titles.

"So, you're saying it might be worth something on EBay?" his agent, Mark Steinberg cracked.

Yeah, like if Ruth, Maris and Bonds had all used the same bat. Woods indicated that using the new wand might be a one-off substitute for the week that will increase his chances of becoming the first player ever to win a British Open at the same site three different times.

"It's one of those things where I've always struggled on slower greens," he said.

Well, only comparatively. Woods Won by a combined 13 strokes at the Old Course in 2000 and 2005 ... both using the Cameron model. So far, the greens this week seem a bit slower than in years past, he said.

The two most personal clubs in the bag are the putter and driver. Woods has changed his irons a handful of times over the years as a pro, moving from Mizuno to Titleist to Nike, swaps out his wedges every few months and has changed his driver more times than he's changed underwear. He even changed his golf ball in his last start.

But his putter was as predictably static as the sunrise.

With international and unofficial winnings, he won over $100 million with it peeking out over the top of the bag, sheathed in a colorful clubhead cover. Forgive the British typecasting, but it was like Excalibur, especially in the earlier years.

He made the switch at the Byron Nelson in 1999 and started reeling off the most impressive run in golf history. He won the very next week in Germany and 16 times in the next 1½ years in the States. He's won all but his first major championship with the model, replacing the Ping rubber grip every year or so.

Some players, inveterate tinkerers, swap putters every week. Nike made him a million similarly designed models over the years, but he never made the switch.

"I have tested a bunch of putters," Woods said in 2005. "It's just so hard to get my gamer out of there. I've tried other putters and some of the putters do feel better than mine.. .. But coming down the stretch on Sunday and I know I need to make a putt, I know this putter has done it."

Woods noted at the time that he had a revealing conversation with New Zealand legend Bob Charles, the first lefty to win a major title. Charles putted with an antiquated Bull's-eye putter for, well, forever. It was the equivalent, in terms of current technology, of a piece of brass plumbing pipe welded on the end of a stick.

"I said, 'How long did you use that old Bull's-Eye?'" Woods recalled five years ago.

"He said, 'About 52 years.'"

"What?"

"'Yeah, 52 years. I tried other putters. They felt better and I have putted better with them, but if I knew I had to make a putt, this one has done it.' "

Added Woods, supplying his own punchline: "I kind of understand."

Stories abound about Woods' uncanny ability to discern the slightest differences between clubs. Most of them are completely true, so it ought to underscore the magnitude of the switch to the less-enlightened.

"Scotty has made me probably over 50 putters and they're not the same," Woods said a few weeks before he won his second Open title at St. Andrews. "It's amazing, it's like a fingerprint, they're not identical. Hopefully you can get something that's as close as you possibly can in case something happens to your putter."

Something has happened of late, to be sure. Woods groused about his putting so many times over the past two years, people have begun to tune out the complaints. After finishing T46 and failing to break par in four rounds at his last start, the AT&T National, he said, "certainly I putted awful all week, so it is what it is."

Or isn't. In his previous start, he complained long and loud about the greens at Pebble Beach -- drawing a rebuke by U.S. Open tournament officials. After all, he had won the 2000 Open at Pebble by a record 15 shots.

He's listed 45th in putting average on the PGA Tour this year, coming off a season in which he finished 23rd. From 2003-08, he finished outside the top 10 in that category exactly once, so he might be heading off a trend before it starts. Or before it festers, anyway.

Maybe it's just a one-week benching, a timeout. But given the myriad forms of upheaval in Woods' life with his sex scandal, lost endorsement millions, an impending divorce, the departure of his swing coach and his mostly poor form over seven months, it could be interpreted as another red flag.

Woods got rightly grilled by the feisty U.K. press on Tuesday about his deteriorating family life, on-course deportment, plus his association with a doctor who is being probed by the FBI in the States and the Mounties in Canada.

After all this time, his rote answers were as stale as the questions. But sticking Excalibur back in the rock?

In PGA Tour circles, that's newsworthy for $87,545,747 different reasons, all with George Washington's face on them.