PONTE VEDRA BEACH– With the golfing world anxious to know Tiger Woods’ health status heading into the PLAYERS Championship, he put any doubt to bed during his Tuesday press conference.
“It’s not painful now,” stated Woods, referring to his neck.
Last week, Tiger Woods was forced to withdraw from the Arnold Palmer Invitational due to neck pain. A tournament that he has won a record eight times, it was a far too familiar narrative of Tiger’s inexorable health problems of the past.
With back fusion surgery, this is the new normal for Woods. Pain in other areas is inevitable, making it all the more important to train smartly and play fewer tournaments.
“My lower back is fused, and so the stress has to go somewhere if I don’t have movement,” says Woods. “It’s very important for me going forward since the surgery to keep pliable or else the stress is going to go somewhere else.”
Success of Older Golfers Gives Tiger Confidence
The expectations heading into the 2019 PGA Tour season for Tiger Woods, compared to 2018, could not be more contrasting. For starters, there was substantial belief that Tiger could not play again, yet alone be competitive in tournaments. Woods debunked this theory last year, improving with every tournament he competed in. The end result: winning the TOUR Championship in September.
For the 2019 campaign, it’s about delicate management and methodical training. Even during Woods’ successful comeback last year, the aches and pains were still present. Forcing the 80-time winner on the PGA Tour to be circumspect in steadfastly adhering to a shorter schedule leading up to The Masters.
“I’ve played three tournaments this year so far, and that’s about right,” says Woods. “I’m 43 with four back surgeries, so just manage what I have and understand that I’m going to have good weeks and bad weeks and try and manage as best I possibly can and not push it. There are times when over the years I pushed it, pushed it through a few things, and I’ve won a few tournaments doing it that way, but also I’ve cost myself a few years here and there because of it.”
But with the flourishing success of veteran players on the Tour, it provides more belief and confidence that Tiger can compete with the best. At the Honda Classic, Vijay Singh, at 56-years old, had a share of the lead in the final round, finishing sixth. Phil Mickelson won a record fifth time at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. With the innovation of new technology, it is paving the way for older players to increase their chances at tournaments.
“It’s definitely doable,” says Woods. “I think technology helps a lot. My swing speed has come down a lot. I’ve lost that fast ball I used to have. But I’m hitting the ball further than I ever have in my life.”
Tiger Working on Putting, Hungry to Compete at PLAYERS Championship
Heading into the PLAYERS Championship, the big question surrounding Tiger’s game has been his putting. At the WGC-Mexico, the last tournament Woods played, he missed numerous short, make-able putts. His average strokes gained: putting this season is 0.168, ranked near the bottom of the top 100 in this category.
Enter Matt Killen, who is working with Woods this week on his putting stroke. Killen has spent a lot of time strengthening Justin Thomas’ game. With Tiger struggling with neck issues, and the amount of time he has played with J.T. over the years, he felt it was appropriate to have Matt give him pointers to improve his putting stroke.
“I wanted him to take a look at it and see what he thought of where my setup looked like now versus all the times that I’ve putted well and I’ve putted well with different postures throughout my career,” says Woods. “As I’ve started to feel a little bit better this week or this past week, then the putting definitely freed up.”
Tiger will join a handful of golfers, who know what it feels like to play the PLAYERS Championship in March. Since 2007, TPC Sawgrass has welcomed the golf world in the month of May. The conditions of the course are often firmer, making the course longer. As Tiger explains, having the PLAYERS Championship back in March serves as a timely preparation for The Masters in April.
“It’s soft, it’s wet,” says Woods. “The golf course plays so much shorter in May than it does in March. That’s probably the biggest difference. We’re going to have to hit more clubs off the tees, have a little bit longer clubs into the greens, but the difference is the greens are much slower and much more receptive.”
It’s been 18 years since Tiger Woods made the epic “Better than Most” putt on the infamous 17th hole. Looking for his third PLAYERS Championship, it is safe to expect the unexpected when it comes to Woods.
As golf has become more analytics driven, Tiger is focused on one stat.