Resilient Tiger Woods makes strides toward Masters return

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Now would be a good time to issue a correction on all those premature obituaries for Tiger Woods’ golf career.

Woods was supposedly done when he withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic in February 2017 after a nearly 16-month layoff from competitive golf.

The harsher critics dismissed his chances of winning another PGA Tour event as some hilarious fantasy.

They’re not laughing anymore.

Not after a 12th-place finish for Woods at the Honda Classic, where he shot even par at one of the toughest courses on Tour. Not after the way he struck the ball so soundly and paced the fairways so freely following his fourth back procedure, a fusion in April 2017 that caused him to miss the rest of the year.

Woods is still learning what his newly fused body will allow him to do on the golf course. But he felt what we all saw during four rounds at PGA National that totally changed the narrative just three Tour starts into his latest comeback at age 42.

“My expectations have gone up,” Woods said after carding an even-par 70 in the final round. “I’m hitting the ball better. I knew I could putt it, I knew I could chip it, but I didn’t know how well I was going to hit it.”

Suddenly, the Woods grading curve has gone out the window. His rounds won’t be measured by how he feels physically after them but by what he scores during them.

Woods was in the hunt for much of the week and, at one point Sunday, just four shots off the lead with four holes to play. He played the next two holes in 3-over par to drop down the leaderboard, but still talked glowingly about the week and the progress he’s made.

It made perfect sense because the onset of this comeback has never been about winning the Honda It’s about getting ready as a bona fide Masters contender, one intent on rocking Augusta National like no one else can. The last two years haven’t been the same in his absence.

“I just miss the rush of competing for a green jacket,” Woods said. “I’ve been doing it since I was 19 years old. Been a long time and I’ve enjoyed every single challenge. Having to sit out on the sidelines, not fun. It really isn’t. Especially since I know how to play the golf course and wish I could play, but I was unfortunately physically debilitated. I could not compete. This year, it’s different.” 

Something about Woods’ personality is different, too. During the final round of the Honda, he often joked with 21-year-old playing partner Sam Burns. Padraig Harrington noticed it immediately by the way he behaved on the driving range at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, exposed and unguarded and carrying himself like one of the guys.

“He was relaxed and enjoying himself,” Harrington said. “Back in the day it was very much business. So yeah, he’s a different person.”

That’s not to say he’s an uncompetitive one. He cursed within earshot of fans after hooking an iron shot left off the second tee in the final round of the Honda. Gave his driver head a healthy bounce off the ground after another errant tee shot the following hole.

He still gets just as frustrated with himself after mistakes as he did five or six years ago. That fire still burns.

“Yup. For sure,” caddie Joe LaCava said.

What do we make of the new-look Woods with familiar tendencies? The stats from the Honda suggest we should take his chances at the Masters seriously. The biggest key at Augusta National is hitting approach shots to the correct windows on the greens. Woods was first in the field in average proximity to the hole at PGA National. He was also first in average driving distance, 18th in strokes gained: putting and 24th in strokes gained: tee-to-green.

Is the game we saw good enough to win at Augusta?

“I think he probably needs another good (tournament) week in there somewhere just to … get more confidence but, sure, I don’t see why not,” LaCava said. “I would never say no.”

Woods’ pre-Masters schedule was still up in the air when he left PGA National, though a trip to Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational seems likely. Wherever he plays, we already know the end game.

“I need to keep building on it, keep building my body, keep building toward April,” Woods said. “That was the goal when I first came back. I told you guys at Torrey, try and get everything situated for April, and I feel like I’m right on track for that.”

And once again, he’s the biggest story in golf by a landslide. Woods finished the Honda eight shots behind Justin Thomas, who defeated Luke List to win in a playoff. Shortly after Woods teed off at No. 9 Sunday, Thomas, playing in the final group, crossed the tee box to head to No. 4. Few in attendance seemed to notice.

“They weren’t coming out here to watch Luke List and Justin Thomas,” said Thomas, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year. “They were coming out here to watch Tiger, so I don’t blame them. I’d go watch him, too, instead of me.”

The world will be watching when Woods returns to Augusta National, ready to say, “Hello, world” again.

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