ORLANDO — While to many it seemed unrealistically soon, Tiger Woods has made it no secret that he aims to have his game ready for the Masters.
At every stop along the way of his most recent comeback, from the Bahamas to San Diego to Los Angeles to Florida’s Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Harbor, Woods has referenced April and peaking for those four tournament rounds at Augusta National.
Coming off a fourth back surgery, a spinal fusion that took place approximately 11 months ago, that appeared a very fast timeline.
But the events of recent days and weeks suggest the 14-time major champion is on pace to be a factor when the Masters begins on April 5. Woods has not won a major since 2008 and hasn’t won the green jacket since 2005.
And yet coming off a tie for second at the Valspar Championship, where he was the only player in the field to play all four rounds under par, the expectations have returned to pre-injury levels.
Woods has been installed as the betting favorite at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times but has not played since his last victory in 2013. And only Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas have lower odds for the Masters.
“I feel very comfortable,” Woods said after his runner-up finish at Innisbrook. “I’ve been here before a few times. So I felt very comfortable. My game has been quite solid this entire week. As a whole I felt very good about what I did this week.”
Woods has shown power and finesse in his comeback, hitting long drives and being deft around the greens. He has yet to get hot with the putter, as his final round at Innisbrook would attest — he needed 32 putts. He’s had his issues with hitting short irons close, an area where you would expect him to improve. But he’s fifth on the PGA Tour in the ultimate stat: scoring average, with 69.46, with a small sample size of 14 rounds.
Perhaps the biggest question mark that remains is Woods’ driver. He didn’t need it much at Innisbrook, maybe 2-4 times per round. He will need it more this week at the Bay Hill Club and undoubtedly more at Augusta National, where the length and undulation coupled with the need to be more precise on second shots will require it.
“I missed a couple of fairways here and there, but I missed them on the sides I wanted to,” Woods said. “That part is huge, because I’m able to play a round of golf and shape my misses again. This week (at Bay Hill) it’s not single file going down the fairways like it was last week. This place is a little bit more wide open, it encourages one to be more aggressive off the tees, get it down there a little bit further, and it gives me more room.”
Woods ranks just 199th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy and only 174th in greens in regulation. Much of that can be attributed to his first six rounds at Torrey Pines and Riviera.
He has improved steadily in those areas at PGA National and Innisbrook and over the weekend hit 14 of 18 greens each day.
And in the few times he did hit driver at Innisbrook, he fared well: at both the fifth and 14th holes on Saturday and Sunday, par-5s that measure more than 600 yards, Woods hit drivers into the fairway, then was up around the green in two shots.
Woods tweaked his driver shaft before the Genesis Open and again before the Honda Classic and has settled on one that weighs less and is a little shorter. All of it remains a work in progress.
“He’s physically fine and he’s actually swinging the club as good as I’ve seen him back in the day,” said Ernie Els.
“I’m starting to see him get into a pretty good groove out there and start to hit the shots that he’s trying to hit and hit them both ways,” said caddie Joe LaCava.
That will be especially important at Augusta National. Woods prefers to hit a high fade. But at several holes he will need to hit a draw in order to play the hole properly, especially with a driver.
It’s not hard to figure out where a driver would be of most use for Woods at the Masters: Nos. 1, 2, 7 and 8 seem automatic, with 9 a possibility on the front side. On the back, Nos. 11, 14, 15, 17 and 18 also seem automatic, with 10 more likely a 3-wood and 13 — the dogleg par-5 to the left, depending on his comfort level — also possibly a 3-wood. So that’s seemingly nine drivers minimum, perhaps more.
That’s far more than he’s had to hit in his past two tournaments, and an area of interest as Woods hones his game for the Masters.