Golf: Tiger Woods looking to learn in Florida at PGA National with one eye on the Masters

Tiger Woods plays a shot during the pro-am round prior to the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa on Feb 21, 2018 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Tiger Woods plays a shot during the pro-am round prior to the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa on Feb 21, 2018 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.PHOTO: AFP

(THE GUARDIAN) - The sternest test for Tiger Woods on this, his latest return from the depths of physical despair, awaits.

PGA National normally ranks statistically among the toughest venues on the PGA Tour, and his missed cut last week in California has raised questions as to the 14-time Major champion's prospects here.

This marks Woods' third Tour start after undergoing surgery to fuse his back. With constant repeating on Wednesday (Feb 21) of what he needs to "learn", the man himself asserted the theme of this being a significant work in progress.

"I'm starting to get that feeling again of playing tournament golf, where you know each and every shot counts," the 42-year-old former world No. 1 said.

"I'm looking at where I need to put the golf ball. I'm looking at weather forecasts. Playing tournament golf, I'm starting to get into that flow again. I missed it and it's becoming familiar again."

Woods insisted work between a short stay at the Genesis Open and this tournament - two of the few he has never won - focused on maintaining a theme rather than upheaval.

"I just felt like I needed to continue with the things I've been working on. I just needed to get better at it.

"I am a lot happier. I've been struggling for quite some time, probably near five years now. So it was a long period of time where I was really struggling. I'm so happy I'm not in pain any more.

"I'm still learning that I'm stiffer than I used to be. I can't create the same angles that I used to be able to create naturally. Obviously I'm fused, so it's a little bit different, and I'm still learning what that feels like under the gun.

"Some of my shots I like to play, they are not the same as they used to be. That part, I'm going to have to learn. It's not something that I'm used to because I've never felt like this before but this is the new norm."

The bigger picture relates to the Masters, which is now little over a month away. It is entirely possible Woods will feature in only one more event - the Arnold Palmer Invitational - between now and what would be a first Augusta National appearance since sharing 17th in 2015. He does, however, have an outstanding record in the first Major of the year.

"I missed the rush of competing for a green jacket," he said.

"I've been doing it since I was 19 years old, been a long time and I've enjoyed every single challenge. Having to sit out on the sidelines is not fun. It really isn't.

"Especially since I know how to play the golf course and wish I could play but I was unfortunately physically debilitated, I could not compete. This year, it's different. I'm looking forward to it.

"I wouldn't necessarily say I'm in catch-up mode. I'm just learning how to play tournament golf again. Unfortunately I've made some of my mistakes, ie last week, and unfortunately that's part of it.

"As far as catch-up mode, no, I don't feel like I am. I know most of the guys have been playing tournament golf a lot more than I have. I'm looking forward to April, trying to get my game solid for April. I've got some work to do."

Rory McIlroy admitted that he encounters a "feast or famine" scenario here. The Northern Irishman won the Honda Classic in 2012 but has missed the cut at PGA National on his last two competitive visits. McIlroy, amid his own return from injury, is seeking a first victory since the Tour Championship in September 2016.

"I'm close," the four-time Major winner insisted. "I'm very happy with where my game's at. I feel like I'm just waiting for everything to sort of fit together. I've seen enough good things in my game over the past few weeks to know that it's not far away."