Match Play: Don't be surprised if Tiger Woods makes a deep run

Mar 17, 2019; Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, USA; Tiger Woods on the ninth green during the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass - Stadium Course. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Match Play: Don't be surprised if Tiger Woods makes a deep run

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Match Play: Don't be surprised if Tiger Woods makes a deep run

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Tiger Woods was totally out of gas when we saw him in a one-on-one match play arena last September.

The venue was Le Golf National in Paris, at the final day of the 2018 Ryder Cup. The opponent was Jon Rahm. Woods looked absolutely exhausted all week on the heels of his Tour Championship victory and unrelenting FedEx Cup Playoffs run.

Rahm closed him out on No. 17 for the 2 and 1 victory and wept on the green, overcome by the magnitude of his victory. Woods headed home to regroup and prepare for a 2019 season that is now off to a solid if unspectacular beginning.

Woods never got in contention at the Players Championship, finishing outside the top 20 for the first time in four starts. The ballstriking was good and the putting inconsistent, but he’ll be free to get aggressive on the greens this week in his return to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.

The most promising news from TPC Sawgrass was Woods playing four relatively pain-free rounds after withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational due to a neck issue. If there are concerns about Woods potentially playing as many as seven matches in one week, they aren’t coming directly from the source.

“I’m hoping that I can play all the matches. That would be great,” said Woods, who hasn’t participated in the Match Play since 2013. “When I played it was only one guaranteed, so that’s kind of nice knowing that I’ll be able to get at least three good rounds in, possibly more if I play well, and that’s basically like a tournament.”

It’s been 25 years since Woods first dominated the U.S. Amateur match play festivities, ripping off three consecutive titles from 1994-96. He also has three Match Play victories as a pro, running through the bracket in 2003, 2004 and most recently 2008.

Tiger Woods has had plenty of trouble with his putter this season. (Lynne Sladky/AP Photo)

Now that he’s finally eligible again as the No. 13-ranked player in the world, Woods’ Sagarin ranking suggests we shouldn’t be surprised to see him make it out of the three-round group-stage format.

Based on a mathematical formula that uses a player’s win-loss record against every player in the field on a given day, Golfweek’s Sagarin rankings has Woods with a record of 613-283-42 against the top 100 players in the world.

This all points to the fact that Woods has become one of the most consistent pros on Tour again. Despite serious putting struggles, he’s ranked seventh in strokes gained total this season and 10th in strokes gained tee-to-green.

A T-30 finish wasn’t what he wanted at TPC Sawgrass with the Masters less than one month away, but the Match Play is simply about playing better than the man in front of you on a given day. Woods is clearly comfortable throughout the bag, and he says the build-up to Augusta National is going more or less as planned.

“It’s right on track,” Woods said. “I’m able to shape the golf ball both ways, which I’m going to need there. Just need a few more putts to go in, but that’s about it.”

His appearance in Texas is the result of a decision made to skip the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course, where he finished T-2 a year ago and lit the fuse for an electric 2018 summer.

Suggesting he skip the Match Play is to ignore who Woods still is deep down.

Much was made of Woods’ demeanor throughout the comeback season. He was undeniably more talkative with playing partners and appeared more at ease on the course – see the massive grin on his face and laughter after imitating Kevin Na’s quick putt pull-out on the 17th green Saturday at the Players.

It does not change Woods’ defining characteristic. He is a competitor. He will scratch and claw and do whatever it takes, whether to make a cut on Friday or put forth a charge come Sunday.

The Match he lost to Phil Mickelson in November was just an exhibition, but you wouldn’t have known it from Tiger’s fist pump and icy glare after chipping in on No. 17 to eventually force extra holes.

The exterior looks different, but the fire burns deeper than ever inside the ropes.

With more freedom to go for broke on the greens and fire at pins on key holes, this week’s Match Play will likely chip away at the façade and provide a glimpse of Woods we haven’t seen in some time.

Stroke-play tournament results are subjective. This week in Austin, for Woods and the rest of the field, winning is the only thing that matters. Gwk

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