PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Back when his presence had the power to make or break a tournament, Tiger Woods liked to keep folks guessing.
Doral, Pebble Beach, Phoenix, Byron Nelson, Disney, even Riviera. For those on the “maybe” list of Tiger stops, many a tournament chief spent an anxious Friday awaiting word whether Woods had made a late entry. Sometimes he did; more likely hopes went unfilled.
In that sense, some things haven’t changed. Except now, Woods himself might be left guessing.
Woods undoubtedly knows the places he’d like to play. But at age 43 and with a sometimes balky spine, the road to Augusta – and subsequently Bethpage, Pebble Beach and Royal Portrush – is subject to detours.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Woods recited in various forms Tuesday – a half-dozen times in all – as he faced the media ahead of the Players Championship, which begins Thursday (tee times).
The session came eight days after Woods surprisingly took himself out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational lineup, citing a neck sprain that was slow to respond to treatment. But he rolled into TPC Sawgrass around midday Monday, ready to work.
That’s not to be overlooked. If his participation had been in any question, Woods would have held back in Jupiter until he was ready to make a call.
That said, he’s keeping the next move close to the vest – even the WGC Match Play, for which he has qualified for the first time since 2014, in two weeks.
“We’ll see how this event goes,” he said. “If nothing flares up, then I’ll play.”
Then what about next week’s Valspar Championship, where Woods, in his Innisbrook debut a year ago, nearly chased down eventual winner Paul Casey? “We’ll see how everything goes here,” Woods said.
(Rough translation: If he misses the cut and nothing flares up, he might want the work. Good news for Innisbrook, maybe not so good for the Match Play.)
That’s roughly how it went down for Valspar last year. Woods missed the cut at Riviera and needed more reps with Augusta on the horizon. At the same time, he has to be cognizant of how much his body can take.
When last seen at the WGC Mexico Championship, he played the weekend with kinesio tape running across his upper back, and he tied for 10th. Little mention was made – not uncommon when it comes to Woods’ health – and there was little reason to think a week of rest and treatment wouldn’t suffice.
Then came last week’s WD, sending a ripple of concern through the ranks.
“That’s a serious issue,” NBC analyst Paul Azinger said at Bay Hill. “If your neck doesn’t flow the way you want it … you can’t play with that. I don’t think it affected him all that much [in Mexico], to tell you the truth. I’m hoping he just feels like he didn’t want to take a chance.”
That seems to be the case, though it’s a little tough to conceive of Woods staying away from Bay Hill – a place where he has won eight times – as a mere precaution.
“I wanted to play that event,” he said. “It’s Arnie’s event, but it was smart to take that one off.”
Woods asserts the neck is no longer a pain. He worked through his entire bag Monday at the back of the Sawgrass range, with particular attention on his putting, and played the back nine Tuesday morning.
The neck woes are a byproduct of his back fusion in April 2017. The lower back can’t absorb the force of his golf swing like it once did, so the energy has to go somewhere. In Woods’ early days on the PGA Tour, the left knee took a beating. Since the surgery, it’s the neck.
“We’re not immune,” Woods said. “Eventually in a repetitive sport, you’re going to wear out something.”
It even managed to creep into his putting. Woods had six three-putts in Mexico, actually an improvement from his week at the Genesis Open. His opening round at Riviera featured four three-putts alone; the total distance of putts made in his final round came to a little more than 50 feet.
Hence the Monday putting session with Matt Killen, whom Woods has come to know via practice sessions back home with Justin Thomas. Killen’s relationship with Thomas goes back to Thomas’ junior days.
“I wanted him to take a look at it,” Woods said, “and see what he thought of what my setup looked like now versus all the times that I’ve putted well. … He mentioned a few things. As I’ve started to feel a little bit better, then the putting definitely freed up.”
The challenge Woods now faces is how to manage things. He said the neck first flared up at last year’s British Open – creating a buzz at Carnoustie when kinesio tape was spotted stretching above his shirt collar – and again in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
It obviously didn’t affect him enough to keep him from ending his five-year victory drought at the Tour Championship. But he acknowledged not long afterward that his schedule became too ambitious; he had to scale back.
“I’m 43, with four back surgeries,” Woods said, “so just manage what I have and understand that I’m going to have good weeks and bad weeks. Try and manage as best as I possibly can and not push it.”
A year ago at this time, Woods had no idea where his repaired back would take him. “That last year was, we’ll see if I can even play,” he said.
Now, “we’ll see” takes on a different tone. Phase 2, if you will.
“I know I can compete at the highest level,” Woods said. “So that’s all good. Now it’s about keeping it consistent, keeping my body solid and fresh and pliable and athletic.
“I can’t stand out there and practice for 8-12 hours like I used to. I’ve got to pick my days, and I’ve got to pick my hours. And on top of that, there are times when I just can’t do it and I’ve got to shut it down.”
Hey, it’s better than where things stood two years ago. Nothing wrong with a little week-to-week intrigue. As long as we know where we can find Woods during the second week of April.
Jeff Shain has been writing and podcasting about golf since 2000, including more than a dozen years at The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffshain