Tiger Woods believes he is on track to bid for a 15th major title at the Masters, despite withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a neck strain.
Woods’s decision to miss a tournament he has won eight times raised fears about his future in the game, with former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger warning fans of the former world number one to “hold your breath”.
“His neck issue, that’s a serious issue I feel,” Azinger said. “Because if your neck doesn’t flow the way you want, that’s trouble. I’m hoping he just didn’t want to take a chance, but we’ll know pretty quickly if he shows up at Sawgrass. That’s how we’ll know how serious it is.”
Sawgrass is the iconic venue for this week’s Players Championship and Woods duly showed up on Monday before playing nine holes in practice on Tuesday and then giving his pre-tournament press conference.
Woods revealed that the neck problem is linked to the spinal fusion surgery he underwent in April 2017, but added: “It’s not painful now. It was getting to the point where it was affecting my set-up, my backswing, it was just gradually getting worse and that’s just because my lower back is fused.
“The stress has to go somewhere if I don’t have movement so it’s very important for me to keep pliable, or else the stress is going to go somewhere else. I have to stay fit, as loose as I possibly can for as long as I play out here.
“I’ve played three tournaments so far and that’s about right. I’m right there heading to where I need to be. My finishes are getting a little bit better, I’ve gotten a little more consistent and I think everything is headed on track towards April.
“It’s about trying to manage what I have. I’m 43 with four back surgeries so let’s manage what I have and understand that I’m going to have good weeks and bad weeks and try to manage as best I possibly can and not push it.
“There are times over the years when I’d push it through a few things and I’ve won a few tournaments that way, but also I’ve cost myself a few years here and there because of it.”
While Woods has finished 20th, 15th and 10th in his three tournaments so far this season, world number two Justin Rose comes into the week on the back of some uncharacteristically poor form.
Rose won the Farmers Insurance Open in January but then missed the cut in Saudi Arabia and could only finish 63rd at Bay Hill last week after rounds of 77 and 75 over the weekend.
“It was a tough weekend,” the FedEx Cup champion admitted. “I thought I was in a good position after two rounds and with a good score on Saturday and Sunday you can run through the field.
“Everything was a little off, I didn’t read the greens well so there’s a few things to work on, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Having) four weeks off was always going to be designed to not necessarily play well at Bay Hill, it’s designed to kick into effect in a few weeks’ time.
“It was a week I just had to go through and sometimes finishing 63rd is a wake-up call too, just gives you that little bit of extra intensity coming into this week to make you realise the game isn’t easy and you’ve got to put in the work and tick all the boxes to prepare.”