Tiger Woods is back in action this week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, though the world No. 1 will have to figure out a way -- bad back and all, and on an unfamiliar golf course he has had no chance to play -- to stop a hard-charging Adam Scott from claiming his top ranking.
The defending champion at Doral for the fourth time in his career, Woods confirmed he would make Thursday’s tee time with Scott and third-ranked Henrik Stenson.
"I feel good," Woods told reporters before his first walk-through on Donald Trump’s newly restructured Blue Monster. "It’s been a long couple of days of just treatment non-stop, trying to get everything calmed down ... It feels good."
A broad smile on the face of the 14-time major champion, who withdrew 13 holes into the final round of last week’s Honda Classic in only his third worldwide competition of the year, belied the irritation he harbored about his failure to get a healthy jump on his pre-Masters preparation.
"Very frustrating, no doubt about that, not being able to play and compete," said Woods, who maneuvered his way into contention on Saturday with a third-round 5-under 65 only to flail his way out of the tournament in the finale that saw Rory McIlroy collapse and hand the win to Russell Henley. "Who knows, if I shot a good round on Sunday I could have stolen one there? I had the opportunity to steal a tournament and being able to finish it makes it even more frustrating."
While Woods pronounced himself fit, his inability to practice on a layout that has changed dramatically since its overhaul by designer Gil Hanse could put him at a distinct disadvantage, especially with Scott edging ever closer to grabbing the top ranking.
"I’ve said the whole time I wouldn’t really think about [ascending to No. 1] until it came to this and [now] it’s impossible not to think about it," Scott, who can grab the top rung with a win and a Woods finish outside the top six, said earlier on Wednesday. "Be a dream come true to make it to that point ... There’s great motivation for me to do that."
Should he fail to contend, Woods can at least get in 72 holes of those all-important competitive reps this week since the Cadillac Championship has a no-cut policy. That’s good news for Tiger, whose back woes hindered his offseason practice sessions and whose game in the events he’s played in 2014 has looked woefully inadequate heading into the Masters in April.
Woods missed his first-ever 54-hole cut in January at Torrey Pines, where he had previously notched eight career Ws. His stint in Dubai was not much better as he scuffled to a T41 finish. Prior to Sunday’s finale in Palm Beach Gardens, in which he sprayed shots all over the place, Woods appeared to find something in his swing when he played himself back into the mix. And then came Sunday.
Scott, like Woods, plays a limited number of events. Unlike the 79-time tour winner, however, Scott has compiled top-8 finishes in three of the four events he’s started this season. He also had a full four days at the Honda and enough practice at Doral to familiarize himself with the adjustments to get ready for his match with Woods.
"There are some big changes to the green complexes [at Doral]," Scott said. "The greens are much larger with much more undulation and that’s obviously going to be the challenge this week. We’re going to be faced with a lot of lag putting with a lot of break across the putts. That could be tricky ... but it’s new, it’s firm and fiery, and that’s going to toughen up as well."
Woods, on the other hand, was clueless about what awaited him on his planned walk-through of the course, during which he expected to chip and putt but nothing more.
"I’ve got no idea about what that golf course holds out there," said Woods, who began practicing his short game on Tuesday, in between treatments.
Woods’ decision to tee it up set up a fascinating two-round start to the tilt with Scott, who could knock him out of the top spot in the rankings. But Scott was just one opponent in a stalwart field that will sport the top 50 in the world, each of whom will try to take advantage of the top dog’s vulnerability.
"It’s not like you’re coming into a tournament thinking of one particular player," McIlroy said in his Wednesday presser after playfully complaining he could not "go to the bathroom without looking at [Woods]," thanks to the wall-to-wall coverage of his friend’s to-play-or-not-to-play decision. "But obviously if Tiger’s not 100 percent it makes it a little easier on the field, for sure."
Scott, however, has the most to gain this week should Woods falter.
"If I got [in a position to contend this week], the motivation to win would be that much more than just winning a trophy," said Scott. "Win a tournament and achieve the No. 1 ranking potentially with that would be a great way to do it."
Woods, who said he would go all out with his swing this week, was not about to relinquish his hard-won seat without a fight.
"It [being No. 1] feels good because you have to earn it," said Woods, who has reigned supreme for an astonishing 673 weeks throughout his career. "You have to win golf tournaments to get there, you have to be pretty consistent I’ve won eight times in the last couple of years to get back to there and that wasn’t an easy task, especially coming from outside the top 50 ... It’s something I’m very proud of."
While Woods’ spirit to win appeared as strong as ever, the aging superstar’s flesh may not be up to the task.
"I was telling Sam as I was walking off [on Sunday], ‘Daddy can handle pain but I just couldn’t move out there.’ I got to a point where I couldn’t twist," said Woods, who conceded that, in addition to a slew of other injuries involving his knee, elbow, neck, and wrist, his back had bothered him off and on since college.
"Trying to explain to your six-year-old daughter why you quit is certainly a very interesting concept," added Woods.