Beleaguered by a bad back and mired in a slump, Tiger Woods enters the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill with a serious agenda to illustrate his ability, both physically and mentally, to win a major this year.
As the Masters approaches, Tiger has to quickly straighten out his game as well as his back after poor results in his last three events.
Coming out of 2013 with five wins and the No. 1 ranking in the world, he looked primed to finally end his six-year drought and win his 15th major in his quest to pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.
He started the new season slowly to say the least when he finished in a tie for 80th at one of his favorite venues, Torrey Pines. Then he strained his back and withdrew from the Honda Classic. He tried to come back quickly at Doral but struggled, finishing with a six-over 78 and a tie for 25th place.
Tiger is still ranked first in the world, but keeping that position is probably the last thing on his mind.
Instead, he has to worry about his ability to drive the ball straight and bend enough to get into the proper putting posture. He needs to go into Bay Hill with confidence as much as flexibility, so that he actually believes he can make the ball do what he wants it to do in order to score well.
Most importantly, he has to play four solid rounds so that when he tees it up at the Masters next month he is ready to give it his all.
By entering this week’s contest, Tiger has defied the naysayers who believe he should rest his aching, aging body leading up to the Masters. It is the kind of defiant attitude we have come to expect from Tiger, and it remains to be seen whether it is the right move.
Even though he has won at Bay Hill eight times, other than in 2002 when he also won the Masters, it has not been a barometer of success.
We are not going to go into whether he should be playing this week or not. He obviously believes it is the right move even though he could jeopardize his entire year if he injures himself again.
Playing at Bay Hill, where he is so comfortable, is as good a place as any for him to get back on track. However it goes, we should learn some things very quickly about his game and attitude:
We really don’t know how severe his back issues are. Many athletes with a bad back need a lot more time than a week to be able to do something as stressful as hitting a golf ball, especially at the pro level.
Yes, he felt enough of a strain that he couldn’t finish at the Honda and was visibly constrained at Doral. Let’s see how fast he has recovered and whether his quick rehab has worked.
But if he's not swinging smoothly and painlessly for four straight days, he doesn't deserve to be considered the favorite to win. Obviously, you can't rule out somebody who's won there eight times. However, you need the entirety of your game, and the confidence in mind and body to win at Augusta.
He's not mentally strong if he's not physically strong. This isn't the 2008 Tiger, the one who battled back at the US Open on one healthy leg.
Tiger often wins or at least contends when he's putting well. History will say that he was not only the greatest player ever, but also the greatest putter. If he wants to truly solidify that reputation, he needs to find his stroke now in preparation for the swift Augusta greens.
He prefers fast greens, so if the greens are slippery-quick at Arnie's course, then it may be an ideal tune-up right before Augusta.
First, he has to get to the weekend, which means make the cut or play without pain. Then, he has to overcome some of the demons that have haunted him over the past few years.
While he has obviously been able to play well enough to win (five times last year), his scoring average on the weekends since 2010 is two strokes higher than it was in his heyday of 1997 through 2009. As ESPN's Justin Ray writes, Tiger's play at the majors since 2012 has been woeful as well in Rounds 3 and 4 with a 28-plus score to par.
Accuracy off the Tee
It will be interesting to see if he starts hitting more 3-woods at this event. That may be a sign of things to come at Augusta where the 3-wood would likely help him keep it in the short grass on a more consistent basis.
At a time when so many players are knocking the ball over 300 yards off the tee, he would be compromising distance for accuracy. Yet, it may pay off in the end in terms of staying in the fairway and giving himself a chance to hit greens in regulation.
Will his back allow him to shape the ball the way he needs to in order to get good placement on the green? And what sort of distance control will he be able to sustain? Tiger’s shot making and ball striking will be highly scrutinized at Bay Hill, and his scoring will be directly reflected by his ability to knock his shots on the green in regulation.
If Tiger can't birdie a par-three or par-four to save his life at Arnie's course, but takes advantage of all the par-fives, that's a good sign, and vice versa.
Remember—dominating the par-fives at Augusta is typically a theme among Masters winners. Tiger, in fact, is the one who notoriously desecrated the par-fives back in 1997. And despite the course being "Tiger-proofed" (meaning they lengthened the course), he's still got the length and versatility to birdie all par-fives.
What will be the gauge of Tiger’s success at Bay Hill?
It is highly doubtful that he can return so quickly and actually win with his bad back and lack of playing time, so will Bay Hill be a confidence builder or a detractor to further success in 2014 and beyond?
Ultimately, it is not about what we learn as much as what Tiger learns about his game and his future.