Column: Limited in play, Tiger returns to a course he ruled

Published 11:55 am Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Along with his five victories and five runner-up finishes, Tiger Woods only once in 12 appearances at Sherwood Country Club has finished worse than a tie for fourth.

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That one time is a reminder how much time and circumstances have changed.

It was at the end of 2005, and Woods was competing for the sixth time in six weeks. His itinerary took him from Atlanta to China to Japan to Hawaii to the California desert before wrapping up his worldwide, whirlwind tour at Sherwood in his Target World Challenge. He tied for 14th against a 16-man field.

Imagine that. Six events in six weeks, even if two of them were 36 holes (PGA Grand Slam and Skins Games).

Now he hardly plays at all.

The Zozo Championship at Sherwood is his sixth tournament in the last eight months.

True, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out three months from the schedule. Even so, Woods waited a month after the shutdown ended in June before making his first appearance. He tied for 40th at the Memorial. He hasn’t played in a month since missing the cut in the U.S. Open. And he likely only has one more tournament — the Masters — the rest of the year.

Golf should be used to this by now.

Woods has made it clear that less is more in a bid to get as much out of his aging body. He rarely plays two weeks in a row unless the circumstances force his hand, such as the FedEx Cup playoffs. Everything is geared toward the majors.

Go back to 2005 to find a 29-year-old Woods who was three years removed from knee surgery to remove fluid and a few benign cysts. Now he is 44 with seven additional surgeries — three more on his knee, four on his back. He has a teenage daughter and 11-year-old son who is playing junior golf events in Florida. Woods sometimes serves as his caddie.

Priorities change. His health has changed. The game is changing.

All of which makes Woods more unpredictable than ever at this stage in his career.

Who shows up at Sherwood? The 82-time PGA Tour winner with his next shot at setting the record for career victories? Or the 44-year-old who doesn’t know how his body will react until he wakes up, sometimes even later than that?

He can win any week, and evidence of that comes from the Masters he won in April 2019, even if it seems longer than 18 months ago. He isn’t the longest off the tee — that’s been the case for years — and doesn’t always putt the way he did. He remains a master shot-maker, the hallmark of his game.

What might help this week is the course.

Woods tied the PGA Tour record last year when he won the Zozo Championship in Japan that finished on a Monday on a rain-soaked course. He had not played in just over two months and had gone six tournaments without contending. Not many could have seen that coming, except that he’s Tiger Woods.

And then the pandemic caused upheaval, especially with travel. The CJ Cup in South Korea opted to move this year to Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, and the Zozo Championship followed by agreeing to move to Sherwood.

That can only help Woods.

Sherwood doesn’t quite fall into the category of Firestone or Torrey Pines, where he won eight times at each. While he has five wins and five seconds at Sherwood, most of them were against 16-man fields.

Firestone and Torrey Pines were different.

In the first stage of his incomparable career, through 2009, Woods won six out of 12 times at Torrey Pines, including a U.S. Open, and he never was out of the top 10. At Firestone, he won seven out of 10 times and never finished out of the top 5.

(Woods also is an eight-time winner at Bay Hill, but he had some stinkers amid his dominance).

The record at Torrey Pines might be better because Woods had to face a 156-man field. Firestone was a World Golf Championship where the field was loaded with the world’s best players but invariably featured players from smaller tours around the world who were out of their league.

Woods has 26 victories on the PGA Tour against smaller fields with no cuts. It’s an interesting argument which are tougher to win. Those no-cut fields have the best players in the world, the ultimate measure. Full fields increase the chance of somebody — these guys are all good — having a career week (think Bob May at the PGA Championship, Grant Waite in Canada).

One thing is clear. Woods has his favorite courses, which is why he keeps going back. Sherwood is among 11 courses where he has won at least three times, including a European Tour event in Heidelberg, Germany.

This will be the shortest year for Woods when he wasn’t forced out by injury. His performances have not been inspiring. Father Time, he often says, remains undefeated. But he’s still Tiger Woods. And this might be one of his better chances.

If not, the Masters is three weeks away.