As April in Augusta draws nigh, one question:
Tell us, Tiger, where does it hurt now?
The setting for this annual pre-Masters physical exam is different. The PGA Tour moved the furniture all around and now the Players Championship is back in line in front of the season’s first major for the first time since 2006. But the level of care and concern remains the same, as the golf community slips into its white smock, logs onto WebMD and asks:
How ya’ feeling, big guy?
As he took to the podium Tuesday for his pre-Players presser, Tiger Woods tackled the stairs with neither grimace nor groan. At no time did he sound like your grandfather getting up from the couch with the plastic slipcover. He seemed to be able to turn his head without it looking like he had slept outdoors all night with a tombstone for a pillow.
His report on the neck strain that caused him to withdraw from last week’s Palmer Invitational was encouraging: “It's not painful now.”
But we know the Woods condition is forever subject to change, and the four weeks between now and the Masters holds so much uncertainty. You cross into your 40s and pile up enough surgeries, your body is going to acquire more moods than Hollywood on Oscar night. Like Woods says, “because my lower back is fused, the stress has to go somewhere.”
Recently, that somewhere was the neck. “It was getting to the point where it was affecting my setup, my backswing, my through-swing. It was just gradually getting worse,” he said.
Tomorrow, who knows? Think of Woods’ afflictions as a flock of pigeons. And his body a power line. No telling where they’re going to light next.
But Tuesday, the pre-Masters checkup for the four-time champion who still controls an inordinate bulk of viewing habits went very well.
He has consulted a specialist for a nauseous putter, which yielded six three-putts during his last tournament outing in Mexico. That combined with a general sense of well-being could make a difference in the weeks to come.
“The putting feels so much better as I feel better. That kind of goes hand in hand,” Woods said.
He’ll tell you he’s trending in the right direction. The results in the three tournaments he has played thus far this year have made steady, precise mathematical gains: 20th, 15th and 10th most recently.
And he seems confident that the interruption of last week’s withdrawal won’t affect his readiness for the Masters.
“I've played three tournaments this year so far, and that's about right,” Woods said. “I was going to play three or four. If I would have gotten my rounds in last week, it would have been four tournaments, so I'm right there where I need to be. My finishes are getting a little bit better each and every time I've gone out so far this year, and I've gotten a little bit more consistent with my play. I think that everything is headed on track towards April.”
Last year, coming back from spinal fusion surgery, Woods proved something quite useful to himself with his victory at the Tour Championship.
“I know that I can play the game again,” he said. “That last year was, we'll see if I can even play. I know I can play again. I know I can win a golf tournament, and so I know I can compete at the highest level. So that's all good.
“Now it's about keeping it consistent, keeping my body solid and fresh and pliable and athletic. These are all things that are a little bit more difficult as you progress in age, and these are the challenges I'm going to be facing going forward.”
All’s good as of this moment. It could change; and be assured you’ll hear about it if it does. For in Woods’ case each little ache will be a headline, I promise you.