Tiger Woods laser focused on Masters after T-5 at Bay Hill

Tiger Woods grimaces after missing a putt on the 15th green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament Sunday, March 18, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP) Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/AP

Tiger Woods laser focused on Masters after T-5 at Bay Hill

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Tiger Woods laser focused on Masters after T-5 at Bay Hill

ORLANDO – Tiger Woods always makes the putt on 18.

That’s what Justin Rose said after Woods’ birdie putt on the last Saturday, and Woods did it again Sunday from 12 feet, albeit for par.

Woods shot 3-under 69 in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational to finish T-5 at 10-under 278.

Next stop, Augusta National.

“I miss playing there,” Woods said. “I’ve had a lot of success there, too, so really looking forward to getting up there and doing a bit of work and getting a feel for the golf course and basically a feel for playing that style of golf again.”

For a long time, the discussion was that Woods always used to make the putt on 18. We’re speaking about his game in the present tense again, and his chances to win the Masters after another top-10 finish and another Sunday in contention at Bay Hill.

Woods began the final round five shots off the lead and made a brief but spirited charge with three birdies in four holes to start the back nine.

“I needed to keep making birdies and you saw I was pretty aggressive on most of the putts pretty much all day,” Woods said. “I just had to take a chance. I had to take a run at it. I figured a low one was what I needed, and the more I looked at the boards, those guys kept going. … I thought I’ve just got to keep making birdies, whatever I need to do, just be aggressive, fire at all flags, and take a run at all the putts and see what happens.”

“He’s one back, baby!” someone with exceptional cellular service shouted when Woods got to the 14th hole, fans chanting his name so loudly that eventual winner Rory McIlroy had to back off his putt at the 11th green.

“People around the green on 11 retaliated with a Rory chant,” McIlroy said. “Wasn’t quite as loud. … I knew at that point he was making a run.”

The run ended when Woods’ tee shot went out of bounds at the par-5 16th. He made bogey there and at 17 to end what had been a seriously impressive and aggressive round on a low note.

“Clinical ballstriking,” caddie Joe LaCava said.

Five tournaments doesn’t seem like a lot of time to prepare for the first major of the year. The wrap-around schedule means most guys on Tour are never really out of form. They might not be as sharp as they’d like, but they don’t have to re-learn a whole lot when the calendar turns.

Woods essentially had been out of competitive golf for three years. He had to re-learn everything. A T-23 finish in his first Tour start at the Farmers Insurance Open should have been a good clue that he wasn’t coming back for a quick victory lap.

A last-resort spinal fusion surgery a year ago seems to have solved the physical issues that plagued him for years. He ranked sixth in the field in driving distance at Bay Hill. Even more telling heading into Augusta was a short game that has eluded him ever since he was Player of the Year in 2013. Woods finished second in strokes gained: around-the-green and eighth in strokes gained: putting.

Distance off the tee, ballstriking and a solid short game? That’s a solid foundation Woods was able to build in such a short period of time ahead of the Masters. The next step is familiarizing himself with Augusta National again after two years off.

Woods plans to get some serious work done there over the next three weeks, with multiple practice rounds. He’ll take a look at potential equipment setups and make a few swing tweaks. And he’ll see if everything he knows about those greens still holds true.

“I’ve got to see if my book is any good,” Woods said. “I have a book from three years ago, but I think they may have resurfaced three of the greens since the last time I played. I want to go up there and make sure and then take a look at all my reads on putts and see if they match my book, and if they’re not, then obviously I’ve got to erase and draw some more lines.”

Bay Hill concluded a stretch of four tournaments in five weeks for Woods, and physically he claims to feel great at age 42. He’s tested the back on hard swings from thick rough and so far, so good. The assumption is his back will continue to hold, but there are no guarantees.

As Woods reminded everyone Sunday, this is unprecedented territory.

“I don’t know anyone who has had a lower back fusion … who can go north of 120 miles an hour (swing speed),” Woods said. “So there’s really no one I can go to on something like this. I’m very young to have this surgery. The average age is 58, and I was pretty young at 41. So I had to do this on feel and still am.”

No one he can go to for advice. No one who can relate to how he’s feeling. This can’t be the first time Woods has felt that way. His rise to fame at such a young age, with so much media attention, came with a lot of baggage. The most beloved player in the world must have felt very alone at times.

Maybe that’s why Woods is going at this latest comeback alone, at least as far as his swing goes. That was the most interesting thing we learned from Woods this week at Bay Hill. He’s gone back to his some of his earliest swing thoughts, and he’s starting to look like a much earlier version of himself.

“The good news is I’m trusting my hands. My hands are telling me what to do,” Woods said. “It’s just like baseball, you’re in the box and you just trust your hands. That’s how I grew up playing and it’s what I’m doing right now.”

It seems after so many years of turmoil and setbacks, Woods is finally free. Free to swing how he wants. Free to put the past in the past and compete again, like only he knows how.

There was only one question entering the week at Bay Hill, and Woods answered it.

He’ll be ready for the Masters. The only question now is whether or not he can finish in a familiar spot – alone on top. Gwk

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