Tiger Woods knew his game wasn’t ready, then he proved it

  • Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
  • Covered golf for more than 20 years
  • Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Tiger Woods does not do schedule hints. Unless it is the most obvious of tournaments — such as a major championship, or the events that benefit his foundation — there is rarely any advance confirmation. Years of banter and evidence can be provided as proof.

So it came as quite the surprise this week when Woods dropped “Houston” into his answer about how he is ramping up for next month’s Masters in this most unusual of years.

Perhaps he knew going in what we saw on Thursday, a guy whose game is not sharp and in need of tournament work with not enough time to fit it all in prior to the fall Masters. A 76 in Thursday’s opening round of the Zozo Championship that left him well out of contention is not what he had in mind.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Masters was rescheduled from April to Nov. 12-15. Instead of the typical run-up through Florida and the match-play event just two weeks prior, it’s a run of three relocated Asian swing events followed by a tournament in Bermuda and another in Houston before the Masters.

It’s strange for all, but especially for Woods, whose schedule this time of year would quite likely include only this week’s Zozo Championship — which he won a year ago in Japan — not to be seen again until January.

But his Masters defense looms, and if any tournament matters to the 15-time major champion at this point, it’s the one in which his legacy was forever cemented with his 2019 victory that gave him a fifth green jacket.

Preparing for it has proved interesting, as Woods has competed in just one event in the past month, a missed cut at the U.S. Open. Before that was a mostly disappointing run of tournaments since the pandemic break that saw his best finish, a tie for 37th, at the PGA Championship.

“I think my plan is just to play and practice,” Woods said Tuesday. “I don’t know if I’m going to play Houston or not. I’m not playing next week, and we’ll see how this week goes and make a decision from there.”

That would be the Vivint Houston Open, Nov. 5-8, the week prior to the Masters. Woods has never played the Houston Open. And as a pro, he has never played the week before the Masters.

What gives?

Two things are in play:

Woods, even before Thursday’s first round at Sherwood Country Club, must have felt that his game would not be sharp enough for the Masters without more tournament rounds. He knew he wasn’t ready, and the way he played at Sherwood did nothing to dispel that notion.

But he also must be feeling good enough physically to add a tournament the week prior to a major. Woods looked good Thursday, actually a bit leaner than usual. He had some stiffness issues last month at the U.S. Open, and it might have been worse than he let on. Here, everything but his score has been smooth.

Woods is not one to throw out schedule possibilities as he did this week. Typically, if Woods were to even be asked about such a scenario, he’d either say no chance or he would deflect. Nobody who has been around him for any amount of time over the years ever considered the idea that Houston would be a possibility.

While playing in Houston the week before Augusta is still not likely, it is clearly more than a fleeting thought.

Adding to the dilemma is the fact that Augusta National’s availability to players in the field the week prior to the Masters is limited. Woods is considering a visit next week instead, which led to the Houston Open possibility.

Throughout Woods’ return to the game since the restart following the pandemic shutdown, his game has been rusty. In five previous events, he has never been closer than 8 shots behind through 36 holes of any tournament. At the U.S. Open, he was 12 back and headed home. He has not played since.

All along, there’s been discussion that he needs to play more. Of course, that is easy to say and not as simple for Woods to pull off at age 44 with numerous physical issues, including the fused back that leads to stiffness.

For example, wouldn’t it have made sense to play last week’s CJ Cup at Shadow Creek? Woods knows the Las Vegas venue, and warm weather and a 78-player field would have seemed a perfect event for him. Add in this week’s title defense at Sherwood — another course he knows, with another 78-player, no-cut field — and that’s a guaranteed eight rounds with two more weeks to get ready for the Masters.

“My game’s definitely better than it was at the U.S. Open,” he said Tuesday. “I feel a little bit more prepared, a little bit better, and hopefully that translates into playing the golf course.”

He might have felt better, but Woods’ game certainly was not better. The par 5s are the easy proof. Three blocked tee shots on those back-nine holes led to two bogeys and a double bogey. It was the first time in his PGA Tour career that Woods played as many as three par 5s in a the same round over par.

For the majority of Woods’ career, he made his living by carving up par 5s. It’s no wonder he was so successful in his own charity event at Sherwood, which he has won five times. But on Thursday, he made just a single birdie and played those holes in 3 over par. His 76 is the highest in any of his 49 competitive rounds here.

Ultimately, Woods might simply decide to do what he has always done — work on his game at home the week prior to the Masters and eschew tournament golf.

But if Thursday’s round proved anything, it’s that his instincts about his own game were correct.

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