WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Tiger Woods will make his first start at the Honda Classic at PGA National’s Champion Course this week, which will be a home game of sorts for the new Jupiter resident.
The last time Woods played the course he was 14 and trying to become the youngest winner of the PGA Junior Championship. Chris Couch shot a course-record 63 and won by 10 shots.
“I think he was 17; I was 14,” Woods said at his press conference after his pro-am round Wednesday. “I believe he had a one‑shot lead starting the final day. I turned in 3-under and found myself four-down playing the back nine. I remember bogeying 10. It was over after that.”
The Honda will kick off the Florida swing with the tournament’s strongest field in years, starting with Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, the second- and third-ranked players in the world, respectively. All four 2011 major champions will play the Champions Course, which ranked as the toughest non-major on Tour last year, as will a healthy dose of European Tour regulars as they begin their U.S. preparations for the Masters.
Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Louis Oosthuizen are among those who will try to reverse a trend that has seen Americans win the first nine events of the 2012 PGA Tour season. That’s the longest streak by American players since 1991, when they won 11 straight.
Woods, though, has gotten the headlines, even more so than the watery, often windy course, where the 190-yard 17th and 179-yard 15th holes—part of the so-called “Bear Trap” trio of holes—ranked as the hardest and second hardest par-3s on Tour, respectively, in 2011.
A few years ago Tour commissioner Tim Finchem urged players to mix up their schedules to spread the wealth, and the TV ratings, among the non-majors. Woods has complied. He played the Frys.com Open in San Martin, Calif., for the first time last fall, and now he’s at the Honda.
Woods played a practice round early Wednesday, hitting most full shots where he was looking, but again missing a handful of short putts, like the three-footer for par he whacked past the cup on the par-4 ninth hole. He seemed to be in a jovial mood, stopping to get his picture taken with a tournament volunteer as he walked off the ninth tee. As he stood on the 10th tee, he looked up and smiled when a fan told him this would finally be his week, the week he breaks a winless streak of more than two years. (Woods’s victory at the Chevron World Challenge in December 2011 is not an official PGA Tour win; his last win on Tour came at the BMW Championship in September 2009.)
“I spend most of my time up at Medalist hitting golf balls,” he said, “and I'm starting to get into where I'm using the practice facility at home a lot more to work on the short game. It's all putting the pieces together and feeling comfortable with each segment. It's coming.”
Not that he spends all his time practicing. Woods, 36, said his 2-year-old son, Charlie, “loves to hit balls with me. My [4 ½-year-old] little girl, Sam, will just kind of run around and pick the flowers.”
Aside from a kerfuffle over former coach Hank Haney’s upcoming book—a reporter pressed Woods on the book’s assertion that he nearly quit the game to join the Navy SEALs; Woods refused to address it—much of the press conference centered on Woods’s putting. His stroke was unusually bad when he had a chance to win his first two starts of 2012, at Abu Dhabi and Pebble Beach, and it wasn’t much better at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he lost to Nick Watney in the second round.
“I spent about almost four hours the other day putting,” Woods said. “Which was good—two different sessions, two and two with a meal in between. I just worked on going back to my old basics with my dad, and some of the things that he taught me. When I looked at the tape, I got away from some of those things. My posture was off; the way the club was releasing was off. A lot of things were off.”
Woods proceeded to delve into the putting theories of the three main instructors in his professional career—Butch Harmon, Hank Haney, Sean Foley—but hinted he might be over-thinking the problem.
“There's a blend to all that,” Woods said, “and ironically enough, when I have to make a putt down the stretch on the back nine, all of that's out the window and I just putt. The two putts that I made at the [Chevron] World Challenge to win I didn't do any of that stuff. I just looked at it and hit it.”
Woods maintains he will still break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional major titles, despite a rush of talent to the Tour that has included Keegan Bradley, McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel and now Kyle Stanley—all of whom are in the field at the Honda.
“You do feel the older you get, the younger they become,” said Greg Norman, who played in the Wednesday pro-am but is not in the field. “Obviously with the time lag of Tiger not being out there, these kids got more confident. They are winning golf tournaments and they are getting the flavor of what it was like to win on a regular basis. So the intimidation factor all of a sudden gets chipped away a little bit.”
Westwood, who went through a similar if more dire slump before rising to No. 1 last year, said coming back from the abyss requires a delicate balance of improved mechanics and improved confidence.
“I found with me, the confidence only came back when I started hitting shots that I had pictured before I played them,” Westwood said. “And then obviously once that happens once or twice, then you're confident; you build up your confidence on that, and it just snowballs.”
Short game: Defending Honda champion Rory Sabbatini won last year largely because he led the field in scrambling, getting up and down to salvage par 21 times in 25 chances (84%). The field average: 52%. … Kenny Perry, who like Mark Calcavecchia is in the field at the Honda while the Champions Tour is dark, needs to make $21,548 on the PGA or Champions tours to reach $33 million in career earnings. … Honda’s “Bear Trap” holes, 15-17, were the toughest three-hole stretch on Tour last year. The field averaged 1.178 strokes over par on that stretch. … The Nationwide Tour’s Panama Claro Championship at Panama Golf Club, starting Thursday, is the second of the tour’s 27 events in 2012.