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Posted March 27, 2019 02:03 pm
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Tiger Woods sets sights on Masters

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    Tiger Woods sizes up a shot on No. 3 during the final round of the 2018 Masters Tournament. [ANDY NELSON/ THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE]

Tiger Woods was healthy and playing well a year ago for the first time since 2013 as the Masters Tournament approached.

There were expectations that he would be battling for his fifth green jacket as he headed to the back nine in the final round.

Veteran Davis Love III, who has known Woods since he came on the PGA Tour in the mid-1990s, knew better.

Photos and stats: Tiger Woods through the years

In the run-up to the 82nd Masters, Love was asked if he thought Woods would win at Augusta National Golf Club, as many were predicting. He said he’d be more interested in seeing how Woods fared later in the season.

As it turned out, Love was right on the money. Woods’ iron play let him down at Augusta National and he shot 73-75-72 in the first three rounds. He closed with 69 to tie for 32nd place, his worst finish at Augusta National since a tie for 40th in 2012.

By mid-July, Woods was getting closer and closer to winning for the first time since 2013. He led the British Open after 63 holes and tied for sixth. Then he finished second in the next major, the PGA Championship, closing with 64.

Five weeks after the PGA Championship, Woods won the season-ending Tour Championship for his 80th career Tour victory.

“He just needed to play a whole year and not get hurt,” Love said in early March, recalling his 2018 comments. “If he just plays full seasons, he can still win.

“Starting and stopping like he was doing (because of injuries), none of us can play that well when you’re rusty,” said Love, who lost in a playoff to Woods in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, which was Woods’ first PGA Tour title. “If he keeps it going ... He proved at the end of last year that he can win most any tournament he’s playing.”

Which brings us to this year and the 43-year-old Woods’ pursuit of his 15th major championship and a fifth green jacket, which would move him into second place in that category, one behind Jack Nicklaus.

Woods said he started thinking about this Masters as early as October, and he’s been working on some of the shots he’ll need that week at Augusta National. He wasn’t able to do that last year because he’d only played six times in the 2017-18 season leading into the Masters. In fact, he hasn’t played a full schedule leading into a Masters that he played in for the first time since the 2013 Masters, when he played 19 times in 2012.

“This year, to be able to ramp up a schedule and to be able to know what I can and can’t do going into the event, is a lot more comforting than this has been in the previous years because it’s been kind of an unknown going into that event,” said Woods, who played 18 times in 2018.

This season, he has played in five PGA Tour events leading into the Masters.

“I’m right there where I need to be,” Woods said. “I’ve gotten a little bit more consistent with my play, and I think that everything is headed on track towards April.”

These days, it’s all about Woods’ health. Any time he is injured, golf fans hold their breath. He has had four back surgeries and four knee operations.

After being healthy all of last year, he suffered a minor setback this year. He started to feel pain in his neck in mid-February at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles.

“It started a little bit at L.A. but wasn’t a worry,” Woods said. “But it started to get a little tighter and tighter and tighter as I played more holes in Mexico (the following week).”

He had already planned to skip the following week’s Honda Classic and then play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational the next week. But he pulled out of the Palmer event to rest his neck and returned the next week for The Players Championship, declaring himself fit again.

The biggest worry for Woods is his fused back, which was done on April 19, 2017, and has allowed him to play mostly pain-free.

Woods revealed at The Players that the recent neck injury was related to the fused back.

“It was getting to the point where it was affecting my setup, my backswing, my through swing,” Woods said. “It was just gradually getting worse. That’s just because my lower back is fused, and so the stress has to go somewhere if I don’t have movement, and so it’s very important for me going forward since the surgery to keep pliable or else the stress is going to go somewhere else.”

Should Woods injure his back again, his career could be over since no other surgery can be performed.

Yet Woods goes at the ball with his driver as hard as he ever has. In fact, his clubhead speed last year was the highest of his career.

“I just feel like in his head, if he can’t get after it full gear, he’ll stop,” said Paul Azinger, a former PGA Championship winner and now a NBC and FOX golf analyst. “He doesn’t have to play. He wants to play and there’s a big difference. As long as he wants to play, he’s going to do everything he can to get back.

Woods said he used the off-season to get stronger. He was worn out at the end of last season. The Tour Championship victory was his fourth event in five weeks, and he had to immediately get on a plane and go to the Ryder Cup in Paris, which started the next week. He admitted to fatigue and it showed - he went 0-4 as Europe rolled to victory.

“My legs are where they need to be (now), which they weren’t at the end of the season,” he said. “I know what I can do, I know what I’m feeling, so now it’s about finishing a little bit better and winning some events this year,” he said.

He didn’t plan to play that many events, but because of strong finishes, his world ranking number moved inside the top 50 and he started qualifying for World Golf Championship events again. He also qualified for the FedEx Cup playoffs and then the Tour Championship.

Because of the way his back held up and what he was able to accomplish last year, Woods has set goals for this year compared to last year.

“Yeah, because I didn’t know what I was going to do last year,” Woods said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the Florida Swing. I didn’t know if I was going to play - how many majors I was going to play in. That was all just fluid and trying to figure that out and on the fly. Well, this year is a different thing. I understand what my body can and can’t do. I have a better understanding of how to train, and my swing has evolved throughout the year as well as my equipment.”

One of Woods’ biggest admirers among the younger PGA Tour stars is Justin Thomas, who sometimes joins Woods for practice rounds. They’ve also been paired together in tournaments since Woods’ return, which can be a learning experience for Thomas.

“I just like watching how he goes around the golf course and how he plays,” Thomas said. “I mean, I’ve played enough with him now where I feel like I’ve seen him play bad, play OK, play well, play really well to where it’s fun watching him get around a course ... but just little things that you can pick up on, like OK, he knows this isn’t a time to attack and he just puts it in the correct spot on the green, and his chipping and putting is so good. So just little things like kind of watching him make his way around the golf course is kind of fun.”