With the West Coast swing and the one-week Mexican sojourn in the rearview mirror, Tiger Woods now heads to his home state of Florida, and away from poa annua greens, for two tournaments he’s had tremendous success in. Woods will skip this week’s Honda Classic before playing the Arnold Palmer Invitaitonal and the Players Championship in back-to-back weeks. He’s an eight-time winner of Arnie’s event at Bay Hill and a two-time winner of the Players, so past history would suggest reason for optimism among Tiger's camp and fanbase.
But when you’ve won 80 PGA Tour events, that much can be said for basically any tournament. So let’s be a bit more time-specific and take stock of Woods’ game after his first three starts of 2019: T20 at the Farmers Insurance Open, T15 at the Genesis Open and T10 at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Iron play. One of my favorite Tiger factoids is that he’s led the Tour in strokes gained on approach shots every single year he’s played enough events to be eligible. That includes last year, when he didn’t really have a grooved golf swing until the Valspar Championship. After leading the WGC-Mexico field in strokes gained approach, he now ranks second in that statistic for the season.
He’s also passing the eye test. At his peak, Woods often spoke of having nine shots in his arsenal with every iron: low, medium and high versions of a draw, straight ball and fade. Perhaps more than any other player in history, he tailors his ball flight to fit whatever the shot/pin placement calls for. He’s doing that again this year, showing a willingness and ability to constantly vary his shape and trajectory. He’s also hitting a ton of shots pin-high, which is a good metric of how much control a player has over his swing. We’ve marveled at this ad nauseum, but it’s worth repeating again: at 43 years old, after four back surgeries, Tiger remains arguably the best iron player in the world.
General lack of wildness. Even when he was at his world-beating best, Woods was prone to some absolutely off-the-planet misses with his driver. Because he swung so hard, when the timing was off he sometimes hit a block-fade or a pull-hook. Tiger’s current driver swing lacks the aggression of his youth, and he’s really developed a go-to shot with his squeeze fade. As a result, he’s hitting more fairways and, just as importantly, not missing wildly when he does miss.
His stroked gained off the tee rank (138th) is poor, but that’s mostly because he chooses to lay back so often. Take last week in Mexico, when he repeatedly hit irons off tees where the majority of the field went with driver. (He actually ranks No. 39 in terms of fairways hit percentage, finding the short grass 101 out of 152 times so far, and he’s No. 35 in driving distance, so the strokes gained rank is a result of club selection). Whether that’s the right strategy in today’s day and age is another discussion, but Woods looks more comfortable with a driver in his hand than he has in quite some time.
Health/speed. Tiger’s now played 21 official events since his return from spinal fusion surgery. Because seeing him play is no longer a shock, it’s easy to forget how fragile this man’s health had been and how dreary his outlook once looked. That he’s able to play back-to-back weeks is one thing; that he’s able to rank No 35 in clubhead speed is something else entirely. Let’s not take this chapter of Woods career, and let’s not take his health, for granted.
Putting. After not three-putting at Torrey Pines, Tiger has had six three-putts in each of his past two tournaments, and his 12 three-putts in 12 rounds so far this year rank 220th out of 222 qualifying players in three-putting avoidance. He is currently 215th in putting from three feet and 195th in putting from four feet. Because he’s made his share of longer putts—he’s 24th n putting from 10-15 feet—his strokes gained putting rank of 82nd isn’t atrocious, but he has missed far too many short putts for anyone’s liking.
He complained at the Genesis Open about not feeling comfortable over the ball, then largely blamed the poa annua in Mexico. Whatever’s causing the misses, he needs to get it sorted out if he’s going to contend in any tournaments, let alone Augusta, where any putting imperfections are magnified. The good news is that a return to Florida means a return to Bermuda greens, which he putts on more than any other surface.
First-round performances. Woods has basically shot himself out of contention in the first round of each of his three starts. The best opening round came at Torrey Pines, where he managed a two-under 70. Then came a one-under 70 at Riviera and an even-par 71 at Chapultepec. He’s found himself closer to the cut line than the lead, which obviously is less than ideal, and has left himself playing catch up on the weekend. That’s fine if your goal is to make a bunch of cuts and rack up the top-10 finishes, but less so when your game is good enough to contend each and every week. Which Tiger’s is.
All in all, it’s been a so-so start to the season—three starts, three top-20 finishes (including at Riviera, the course he’s played worst throughout his career) and he’s trending in the right direction. Woods probably would have liked to contend in at least once tournament by now, but he’s shown enough to expect him to challenge for a win in Florida. It’s also important to remember that Woods’ goal is always to peak for the majors, and there’s no reason to believe his game won’t be where it needs to be when Augusta rolls around in six weeks. Given where his iron game is, if he can shore up the short putting, he should win multiple times in 2019.