Rude: Woods playing well since last year's WD

Tiger Woods has won four PGA Tour starts since he withdrew from the WGC-Cadillac Championship last March.

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Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

A year ago, a grimacing Tiger Woods held his leg and golf held its breath. As you may recall, Woods exited parking lot left when quitting after 11 holes of the final round because of that recurring Achilles tendon injury.

The premature departure seemed to cloud his future, given the history of that fragile leg. But the past 12 months have shown that we shouldn’t judge a book by a strained body part.

Woods is not the terminator he once was, but remarkably he has won four of his 17 stroke-play tournaments on the PGA Tour since limping away from the WGC-Cadillac Championship. The 4-for-17 sits in the neighborhood of his winning percentage during a prime he is trying to re-create.

The take a year ago was that he would need two healthy legs to march him upward long-term. And, as the results and shots have shown, he has them.

“I’m actually able to do everything,” Woods said Wednesday at Trump Doral on the eve of the Cadillac event. “I don’t have to worry about my Achilles or knee anymore.”

That means he would be more inclined to need a trainer rather than a therapist when walking into a gym, one of his favorite things.

“I can now actually train instead of rehab,” Woods said. “I’ve made some pretty significant gains in my strength, and it feels nice to be able to ... train and not go out there and do the little bitty knick-knack rehab things.”

At this time last March, no one seemed to know whether his too-tight Achilles would be a mild inconvenience or another ominous sign that his squeaky wheel might not be up for a marathon. There was concern because the last time Woods had hurt the Achilles, he played only nine competitive holes during the next four months and missed the two summer major championships in 2011.

All we knew for sure was that his left leg, surgically repaired at the knee four times, served as golf’s most important appendage.

Woods, of course, wasted little time in giving an answer, for he won his next start, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, by five strokes and ended a remarkable 2 1/2-year winless streak spawned by a personal-life scandal. Woods would add victories at the Memorial and AT&T National last year and yet another Farmers Insurance Open bottle cap in January.

Chalk it up to a swing that is more second nature and, of course, two healthy legs.

“That’s one reason why I’m hitting it further,” Woods said. “I have my legs underneath me, and that’s where our power is. It’s nice to be able to have that, and I’m moving the ball out there to where I know I can again.”

At the moment, Woods ranks 10th on Tour in driving distance. Yes, the sample is ultra-small, but it’s nonetheless a good sign for a longtime bomber who hasn’t ranked in the top 20 in distance since 2007. The dropoff was significant considering Woods had finished in the top 11 in his first dozen seasons, including No. 1 during his rookie year.

Woods worked on the range here Wednesday with Sean Foley, his instructor of 2 1/2 years. They focused yet again on refinement of the same principles — in addition to maneuvering the ball both ways, a must in wind at Doral.

Woods, too, aims to put aside a 74 Sunday that dropped him into a tie for 37th at the Honda Classic. You might say he didn’t sound too concerned about getting over that undesirable result.

“You have to move on,” he said. “I’ve just put it aside and moved on (over the years), whether I won the tournament or missed the cut. You move on and get ready for the next event. ... That’s what we do.”

Plenty will be paying attention to what he does this week, particularly the first two rounds when he is paired with struggling world No. 1 Rory McIlroy and former No. 1 Luke Donald.

The bigger picture, though, focuses on how he fares in this year’s major championships. His pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 has been stuck on 14 since summer 2008. He hasn’t won a Masters, remarkably, since slipping on his fourth green jacket in 2005. And then there was the oddity of 2012, something that raises the urgency for him to re-establish himself on major weekends.

He used to own weekends more than Bernie ever did. But recently they have owned him. Last year, when he co-led twice midway, he shot 146, 148, 143 and 146 on major weekends.

Tiger Woods.

You can chalk that up to swing-transition issues or Nicklaus record pressure. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it happened and, at 37, he needs to fix it.

Just like he did his leg.

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