Masters almost here - will the champ, Tiger Woods, be ready?

The Masters is only three weeks away, and Tiger Woods is searching for the fairway and his game. Not the time to be on a scavenger hunt for red numbers.

And to compound his problems – stop me if you’ve heard this before – things are really messed up this year. The glorious rite of spring that is the Masters has been moved back to pumpkin-spice season. The lead-up is all different this time. No Florida swing. No match-play tune-up. All these finely honed par-breaking machines are facing a Masters prep unlike any other, which now includes run-up tournaments in Bermuda and Houston during hurricane season.

It’s as if everything is taking place in an alternate universe this year. And Woods is reaching that age where a change in routine really bumfuzzles a person.

“This is all different,” Woods said earlier this week. “This whole year’s been different for all of us. The fact that the Masters will be held in November, it’s unprecedented. I can’t simulate the normal ramp-up that I normally have, and I don’t think anyone else can either. It will be different for all of us.”

For your defending Masters champion, the lead-up is bringing some wildly mixed returns. Woods is at the Sherwood Country Club in California now playing in the Zozo Championship, and from the outset the man looked rustier than a junkyard AMC Gremlin.

And with only two other events to knock off some of that corrosion, neither of which Woods has committed to play, the chances of him showing up at Augusta competition keen are withering. Woods never reveals his schedule, as if it would compromise national security if it fell into the wrong hands. But he won’t play in Bermuda. And he has never before as a pro played an event the week before the Masters. However, his obvious lack of real-round readiness could compel him to play in his first Houston Open.

Woods' first round at the Zozo was worse than so-so. He’s playing a course where he has won five of his own Hero World Challenge small-field exhibitions – nice host, huh, like the guy who always wins the poker game at his house and never puts out the good scotch. But Woods flailed Thursday, shooting a 4-over 76, a distant 12 shots off the lead.

His most grievous Round 1 sin was butchering the par 5s, going 4 over on three of them. At Augusta, it’s kind of important to overpower the longest holes – and for his career, Woods is a cumulative 164 under on the par 5s there. So, yeah, he needs to get that straightened out. Stat.

But there’s always the promise of the next round. Friday offered another opportunity for Woods to prove his assertion that his game is in better shape than during his last sighting, a missed cut at the U.S. Open. He improved 10 strokes from rounds 1 to 2, shooting 66 on Friday. Where the day before was darkness, now a hint of light. Why, at this pace, he’ll shoot in the mid-40s on Sunday.

He won’t miss the cut at the Zozo because there isn’t one. Therefore he is guaranteed a couple of more days of trial by tournament golf in order to gain a little consistency and even more momentum.

We keep waiting for more signs of life from Woods like Friday’s round, but he just doesn’t play enough out in the open to offer much. After Friday at the Zozo, he will have invested 20 competitive rounds in the past 250 days. He has been off the radar since missing the U.S. Open cut in mid-September.

The turmoil of the pandemic has been particularly hard on him. In the four events since the restart in which he has made the cut, his average finish is 46.5 – with the highest being a T-37. The more Woods talks about being able to get his game right on the practice range, away from the heat of competition, the more it sounds like self-delusion.

There is no secret lab where even a player of Woods' standing can find a magic replacement for all those missed tournament test drives. And always at issue is a back that could stiffen up on the next swing.

A November Masters will be strange enough. A November Masters without an at least mildly competitive Tiger Woods – defending champion – would add another thick and unwanted layer of the odd.

Sure would like to see Woods find some success to build upon before he takes the first tee at Augusta on Nov. 12. Maybe he can find something this weekend. Or something more should he decide to throw all precedent to the wind in this blighted year and play the week before the Masters. A revelation complete with a heavenly choir would be nice.

It will be unnervingly quiet in three weeks without fans at the Masters. No need to add the damper of a scuffling Tiger Woods.