Tiger Woods: Healthy and in control at Bay Hill

David Cannon

Tiger Woods says that regaining his health, more than any other factor, has been the key to his resurgence.

Tiger Woods will answer questions about how comfortable he is with his swing and how much confidence he has in his Steve Stricker-tweaked putting stroke.

But the key difference between Woods’ game last year, when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first official PGA Tour victory since September 2009 , and today, when he’s on the cusp of reclaiming the No. 1 world ranking, is his health.

“As I said, I keep explaining to you guys,” Woods told reporters Saturday after firing a third-round 6-under 66 to get to 11-under for the week and charge into a two-shot at Bay Hill, “is that I was hurt for a long time.”

No, he replied to queries about whether he regained his self-assurance from the two tour wins he’s already chalked up this year. And yes, he’s more at ease with the swing changes he and Sean Foley have been working on since 2010.

But, really, the difference between a year ago and now came down to two good wheels.

“I’m much more comfortable, but also I think that I’m feeling pretty good physically,” Woods said. “That was huge.”

Woods entered Arnie’s 2012 tourney two weeks after withdrawing from the WGC-Cadillac Championship with a sore Achilles tendon. As Woods drove away from Doral, the golf world wondered when -- or if -- he would return to the course.

He rebounded quickly but said quitting the event had enabled his return to the winner’s circle.

“Last year at this point I had just pulled out of Doral, which was the smartest thing I could have done in a long time,” said Woods, who recalled trying to return too soon from spraining his left knee and Achilles at the 2011 Masters.

Attempting a comeback at The Players Championship a month later resulted in his withdrawal and “ended up costing me a summer,” said Woods, who next teed it up in August at the 2011 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Last year, Woods played it smart by resting his injury, which allowed him to come right back and end his long winless drought with a 5-shot victory over Graeme McDowell.

And now, after another 12 months of improved fitness and practice, Woods said he was strong enough to be able to tweak his swing mid-round -- like when his errant tee shot on the par-4 ninth on Saturday was tracking out of bounds. A tree save kept his ball in play and he was able to scramble for a par.

“I've had one more year of working on my game and here I am,” he said. “It's taken me a little while. I think I had to get physically strong enough and physically healthy enough to do it.

“The changes I had to make, I had to be stronger, hence, I feel good, I feel explosive,” added Woods, who was 35th on tour in driving distance in 2012 and, prior to this week's event, was No. 11. "Consequently, my ball is traveling further than it ever has. I'm hitting the ball out there with some pretty good pop.”

For those looking to pinpoint exactly when Woods’ game came together, he said there was no “aha!” moment that put him on the verge of matching Sam Snead’s record of eight triumphs in one tour event.

“There was no point. It was just a gradual progress,” he said. “I've gotten better and better, and my short game has gotten better and better as well. I felt that I didn't need to spend as much time hitting golf balls. I could work on my short game. Towards the end of last year, I started coming around, paid dividends at the beginning of this year and here we are.”

Where we are is that Woods is 18 holes from capturing the No. 1 ranking for the first time since the end of October 2010. It’s been a long, steady climb back to the top from the 58th position but if Tiger's health remains sound, it could be a while before the 14-time major champion relinquishes the throne.

“It sort of was one of my goals to get back to that position after being out of the top 50 there for a while, being hurt, and having all my points come off where I couldn't play,” Woods said. “That was not a fun stretch, but I had to get healthy in order to compete, and so far I've had five wins on our tour in the last couple years.

“So I'm heading in the right direction.”

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