Bob Harig | ESPN Senior Writer
This is not the ideal way to prepare for immediate success in tournament golf. It might not be the ideal way to prepare for the Masters. But it is the Tiger Woods way. And perhaps we should have seen it coming.
Woods, in what was looking to be less and less of a surprise, is not playing next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, the tournament he has won eight times on a Bay Hill Club course that he has mostly owned.
And where just two years ago, with nowhere near the game he possesses now, Woods tied for fifth -- despite pumping a tee shot out of bounds on the 16th hole of the final round.
So yes, with warm temperatures expected at a familiar ballpark offering a flat walk, Woods might easily have been expected to play Palmer's legacy tournament in the run-up to the Masters, now just over a month away.
Then you consider that the API is the 10th event of the calendar year, Woods has played only eight competitive rounds and he has had the past two weeks off after having two weeks off prior to his last start in Los Angeles.
But the new normal for Woods, 44, these days is less is more -- really less -- and perhaps beyond that, avoiding back-to-back weeks of tournament golf whenever possible.
Continued back stiffness doesn't help, and Woods seems to be taking the cautious approach more these days. Remember when he sat out the Saturday sessions at the Presidents Cup? Woods wouldn't defy his instincts then, and this appears to be the same case.
"He is not going to play,'' Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, said in a text. "Back still stiff and just not quite ready.''
Although he was expected to play in the WGC-Mexico Championship, Woods skipped it, holding off until the last minute on a decision while he was struggling with back stiffness at the Genesis Invitational, where he eventually finished 68th, last among those who made the cut.
The back problems did not appear to be a major concern two weeks ago, simply part of the deal for a 15-time major champion who has had four back surgeries. Now it's fair to wonder if there is something more serious going on, or if this is just caution. A quick commitment to the Players Championship (March 12-15) would help alleviate those concerns.
Or ... it is quite possible at this point Woods wants to avoid playing consecutive weeks, something he'd be doing if he were to play in Orlando prior to the Players. In theory, he'd take another week off after the Players, then enter the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (March 25-29), where he is assured of three rounds in pool play. Last year, he tied for fifth, losing in the quarterfinals. He'd then have another week off -- last year he visited Augusta National for a day -- before the Masters.
The hints have been there all along.
"The idea is to peak around Augusta time, yes,'' Woods said at the Genesis Invitational when explaining his reasons for skipping the Mexico tournament. "I just felt I wasn't going to be ready for next week, a little run-down and playing at altitude as well isn't going to help that, so take the week off.''
So is playing potentially only four times in 2020 prior to the Masters enough?
It is interesting to note what Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, felt about the 2019 Masters, when Woods played five times leading up to the first major championship.
"Personally, I wasn't quite sure he had enough tournament rounds,'' LaCava said. "We had a pretty light schedule going in. Having said that, I know when he's not feeling well. I think he knew he needed to save up some energy and it was more important for him to be rested and get his back worked on versus playing tournament golf.
"Easy to say now because he won the thing. But I think we needed one or two more tournaments to be a little sharper going in.''
Last year, Woods played the Farmers (T20), Genesis (T15), WGC-Mexico (T10), Players (T30) and WGC-Match Play (T5). In the four stroke-play events, he did not finish closer than eight shots to the winner. But it all came together at Augusta National.
This year, he tied for ninth at the Farmers and had the 68th-place showing at the Genesis. TPC-Sawgrass, despite two wins there, has typically caused Woods grief. The match play event will at least give him three rounds, and last year he noted the competitive mindset it puts you in each day.
Will that be enough?
Keep in mind that when Woods is feeling good, he's still as good as anyone. He showed that when he won in Japan, played well in the Bahamas, and had the best record at the Presidents Cup. Woods' victory at the Zozo Championship came despite not competing for more than two months.
But it also could be argued that the rest of the field at the Masters is trying to peak for that week too. Not so much at a fall event in Japan. So the competition will be more finely tuned, and none of the top contenders will arrive in Georgia having played less than Woods.
"That's the fun part of trying to figure this whole comeback -- how much do I play, when do I play, do I listen to the body or do I fight through it? There are some things I can push and some things I can't,'' he said at Riviera. "And so I had a theory this year that I may play about the same amount. What did I play, 12 times last year, and so that's kind of my number for the year.
"I won't play a lot more than that just because of the physical toll and I want to stay out here for just a little bit longer.''
So here we are. Is Woods just being smart, trying to avoid the temptation to push himself? Or is there more to it, an injury issue that is more problematic than he is letting on?