The competition part of the preparation plan is complete, and it could not have — short of a victory — gone any better. Tiger Woods would have taken it “in a heartbeat” had he been presented with his recent body of work in December, back before anyone could predict what this latest comeback would entail.
Now, just two weeks before the Masters, where Woods said he hopes to be at his peak, he has plenty of positives to build on, along with a few negatives to address.
Woods plans to visit Augusta National in the coming days to familiarize himself with a place where he has won four times but has not played since 2015. Due to his various back surgeries and recoveries, Woods has missed three of the past four Masters.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Woods said after tying for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he played his 18th competitive round this year and his last before the Masters. “I miss playing there. I’ve been there for the [Champions] dinner, and as great as that is, it’s frustrating knowing that I’m … young enough to play the event where some of the other champions are not, and I just have not been able to physically do it.
“I’ve had a lot of success there, too, so really looking forward to getting up there and doing a bit of work and getting a feel for the golf course and basically feel for playing that style of golf again.”
Other than Phil Mickelson, nobody will tee off at Augusta National on April 5 with more knowledge of the course, despite Woods’ absence in recent years. Regardless of form, he has nearly always been a factor since the first time he teed it up there as a pro in 1997 and won by 12 shots.
In 18 appearances at Augusta as a pro, Woods has been outside of the top 10 just five times and outside of the top 25 once. He has four victories and another seven top-10 finishes. In his last appearance in 2015, he finished tied for 17th despite missing the previous nine weeks to deal with short-game issues.
Now that he is healthy again and, as he has said, void of the back and nerve pain that plagued him for most of the past four years, he can concentrate on the task of preparing for a unique and challenging course.
“I’ll start to make some changes for Augusta, what kind of equipment setup I’m going to go with, some things I want to do with my swing,” he said. “As crazy as this may sound, I haven’t putted on bent grass in two years, so these next couple of weeks will be good work.”
Woods was referring to the putting surface at Augusta National, a type of grass not used on greens in Florida, where a form of Bermuda — typically with more grain — is used. The greens at Augusta National are known for their speed and undulation and can take some getting used to, although Woods prefers fast green speeds.
He said any practice rounds away from tournament week would involve detailed sessions in which he charts yardages and takes notes on the greens.
“I’ve got to see if my book is any good,” Woods said, referring to his Augusta National yardage book. “I have a book from three years ago. … I think they may have resurfaced three of the greens since last time I played, but I want to go up there and make sure, and then take a look at all my reads on my putts and see if they match my book, and if they’re not, then obviously I’ve got to erase and draw some more lines.”
It is unclear whether caddie Joe LaCava will be joining Woods. Augusta National requires that players use one of its caddies during non-Masters weeks, so LaCava could only walk along.
Either way, LaCava likes what he has seen.
“It was a clinic, I thought, except for two tee balls,” LaCava said of Woods’ final round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “No. 9 he got away with it, but, you know what I mean. It was a clinic ballstriking, except for the tee balls at 9 and 16. Other than that, it was great.”
Of course, the one at Bay Hill’s 16th on Sunday sailed out of bounds, ending any hope Woods had of contending. It was a deflating rally-killer and pointed to the work that still needs to be done.
While Augusta National offers wide fairways and the ability to recover from poor tee shots, it is still a second-shot golf course that requires attacking from the proper places. Although Woods’ game has been amazingly good considering he has played just 25 worldwide events in the past four years — and only six since last year’s Masters — his driving accuracy remains a concern.
Woods ranks 148th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee (a stat that measures him in relation to the rest of the field), and he is 192nd in driving accuracy, hitting just 51.6 percent of the fairways. And yet he ranks 14th in strokes gained on approach to the green, but just 174th in greens in regulation percentage at 61.4.
His short game has made up for some deficiencies, and he has not given himself enough birdie chances.
Still, in the stat that matters most, Woods is fifth in scoring average at 69.4, and that’s after some good tests: Torrey Pines, Riviera, PGA National, Innisbrook and Bay Hill. His finishes — tied for 23rd, missed cut, 12th, tied for second and tied for fifth — have sparked optimism.
If the past is any indication, Woods had won at least once in the same year preceding each of his four Masters victories in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005. He also played no fewer than seven events leading up to the Masters in any of those years.
Then again, in 2010, coming off his personal leave and having not competed since November, Woods showed up for his first event at the Masters and tied for fourth. Three years ago, having missed nine weeks due to chipping issues and dealing with back problems that would lead to two procedures later that year, he returned at the Masters and tied for 17th.
“Once I get there [in contention], I’ll be all right,” he said. “But it’s getting to that point, getting my game consistent and good enough where I can play myself into contention. Once I get there, I’ve done it enough times, I’ll figure it out. But getting to that point is a different story.”
So improvement is still required. Woods must reacquaint himself with the bent grass greens, not to mention an undulating, physically demanding course. There are needed tweaks to a golf swing that remains a work in progress, a fine line still between trust and a lack of commitment.
But coming off of two top-5s at demanding courses in Florida, Woods and his caddie can look at the big picture and take plenty of confidence in the impressive road he has traveled.
“I don’t want to get too high or too low,” LaCava said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But you’re seeing improvement each week. I know you hear that from him, too. But it just seems like he’s getting better and better with his swing and trusting it more, which I think is huge.”