The positives are easy to miss, or simply take for granted, given the early stages of his comeback and some of the struggles that have been apparent for all to see.
Tiger Woods has the power to compete with the game’s elite, and seemingly no physical issues related to his spinal fusion surgery that took place 10 months ago.
The short game is solid, another surprise given his lengthy layoff, and Woods appears genuinely excited about playing competitive golf again, interacting with peers and fans more frequently and offering up a nice dose of self-deprecation at times.
And more encouraging: some atypical bouts of candor — although he’s sent a bit of a mixed message regarding the year’s first major championship at the Masters.
Woods is not raising the expectation bar to unrealistic heights, and he appears committed to a cautious, patient approach in his latest comeback.
And yet Augusta National teases, given that he has referenced it more than once.
“It’s nice to be back competing again and to be able to go out there and play, practice after each; that’s been nice, something I haven’t done in years,” Woods said after missing the cut at the Genesis Open, before adding what has bothered him the most.
“Just the inconsistency of it. It’s so different playing, as I said, tournament golf versus playing at home. I’ve just got to play more tournaments.”
All of it makes sense, and it’s refreshing to hear Tiger being honest about his plight — even though it is not necessarily conducive to being a force in six weeks at Augusta National, where he has not played since 2015 when he managed to finish in a tie for 17th with numerous doubts surrounding his game.
Woods has played just 10 rounds of competitive golf since his fourth back surgery, and four of the those were in the friendly confines of the Bahamas, where Albany Golf Club is not meant to expose flaws.
Those flaws have been more visible at Torrey Pines and Riviera and will be again this week at PGA National, where Woods is showing a willingness to play back-to-back weeks, although at another brutish course.
“The last two tournaments I’ve played have been really tough tests,” he said after posting his highest score during those two events, a 5-over 76 that caused him to miss the cut by 4 strokes at Riviera. “It is what it is. These are two tough venues, and it was tough on me.”
What does all of this mean for the Masters?
Well, the driving issues (17 of 56 fairways hit at Torrey Pines, 13 of 28 at Riviera) are profound, but they are far more easily covered up at Augusta National, where the fairways are wide and recovery shots encouraged.
Woods looked great off the tee in the Bahamas but has struggled since. He downplayed the idea that switching drivers was a factor (he went from TaylorMade’s M2 model to an M3), but it does make you wonder.
He maintains that increasing his swing speed necessitated a change, and he has since switched to a stiffer shaft he was using in 2015. So far, the combinations have not worked, at least not consistently.
During Friday’s second round, he conversed several times with Rory McIlroy, who also uses the TaylorMade equipment. “We just started talking about the driver, like the drive he hit on 17 was a little … it didn’t spin enough, so it sort of nose-dived to the right,” he said. “Just talking about that sort of stuff, technical stuff.”
It could be that more equipment tweaks are necessary, although that doesn’t explain the high number of tee shots Woods hit to the left where “my cut was just not cutting,” he said.
The lack of greens hit, especially at Riviera (16 of 36) is more alarming, although simply playing from the fairway more often is bound to improve those numbers. And yet, Woods admitted that his iron play — so crucial at the Masters — is well off.
“One of my hallmarks of my whole career is I’ve always hit the ball pin high with my iron shots, and I have not done that,” he said. “My wedge game is fine, but my normal iron shots that I’ve always had dialed in for much of my career … it’s just not there.”
Woods has two, maybe three, tournaments to fix it. He has not said where he will play beyond the Honda Classic, but he has said he needs to play more tournaments, which could mean the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks from now will be added. Woods has won it eight times.
Another possibility is the Valspar Championship in two weeks, an event Woods has never played. But if he is looking for tournaments, the choices are minimal. He’s not exempt for the WGC-Mexico Championship next week, nor the WGC-Dell Match Play.
The Houston Open the week before the Masters would be an intriguing possibility, but Woods — a true creature of habit — has never played the week ahead of the Masters and is more apt to spend time practicing at Augusta National.
After playing with Woods in November and during two competitive rounds at Riviera, McIlroy is preaching patience.
“I have no doubt,” McIlroy said. “It’s more sharpness. It’s just playing tournament rounds and all that sort of stuff. It’s not too far away.”
This was always going to be a journey that would take some time. You don’t have major surgery, go six months without swinging a club, make equipment modifications and suddenly go shot for shot with the best in the world.
But Woods has said more than once that trying to peak for the major championships remains among his goals. “I’m looking forward to just kind of progressing, just keep playing, keep playing tournaments and get everything kind of situated headed to April.”
You never say never with Tiger. He has shown amazing resilience at Augusta National, even in the face of great adversity. His comeback from a personal scandal in 2010 (T-4) and the return after nine weeks because of, among other things, chipping problems in 2015 (T-17) are prime examples.
Since his first Masters start as a pro in 1997, Woods has been outside of the top 20 just three times. And since his last victory in 2005 at Augusta, he has seven top-6 finishes.
Whether all of this squares with his need to be patient and play more tournaments is part of what the next several weeks will reveal.