MIAMI • Tiger Woods' expectations have "gone up" after his 12th placing at the Honda Classic in Florida on Sunday.
Though a double-bogey at the par-three 15th ended any outside chance of victory at PGA National, he took heart from his performance in just his third official start since undergoing a spinal fusion last April.
An apparently healthy Woods seems increasingly likely to head to April's Masters, the first Major of the year, as a contender, rather than just one of the players invited back as a former champion.
"I feel like each time out I've gotten better and I've gotten more of a feel for playing tournament golf," the 42-year-old told reporters after playing back-to-back events for the first time since the 2015 season.
"The last couple of days, it felt easy to play tournament golf. The warm-up felt good. I get into the flow of the round. I could find the rhythm of the rounds faster."
He shot an even-par 70 on Sunday to finish at even-par 280, eight strokes behind winner Justin Thomas (68). It was his best PGA Tour finish since he was tied 10th at the 2015 Wyndham Championship.
Four weeks ago, Woods was equal 23rd in his official comeback at Torrey Pines, while he missed the cut the previous week at Riviera, where one bad round of 76 cost him. It is his only score of more than 72 in 10 rounds this year.
HOW THE FORMER WORLD NO. 1 RANKED LAST WEEK IN...
PROXIMITY TO THE HOLE
29 feet 3 inches
"I'm just building towards April," he said. "I'm trying to get myself ready for that and I feel like I'm right on track for that."
He led the field at the Honda Classic in proximity to the hole (29 feet 3 inches) and was second in driving distance (318.9 yards).
And according to The Sun-Sentinel, his swing speed clocked up to 128.4mph (206.6kmh), the fastest of any player in the last three years.
His downfall was the three-hole Bear Trap stretch, where he was eight-over for the week.
Jack Nicklaus, whose record 18 Major titles Woods is chasing, told CBS: "I'm amazed at how well Tiger's playing. I just think it's fantastic. He's swung very well. He's playing well. It's fantastic."
Despite the positive signs, Woods demurred when asked if he felt like the "old Tiger".
"I feel like an older guy," the 14-time Major champion said.
"My new reality, my back's fused and I can't create the same shots I used to be able to create. I can hit the same shots but I just have to do it in a different way. I didn't really know what to expect. My expectations have gone up."
Fellow American Thomas, who won his first Major last August at the PGA Championship, looks increasingly likely to be one of Woods' biggest rivals at Augusta.
He rolled in a birdie on the first hole of a play-off - the par-five 18th - to outduel third-round leader Luke List (69) and enhanced his reputation as a clutch performer.
The 24-year-old has seven victories in his last 31 tournaments. With Sunday's win, he improved from fourth to third in the world, swopping places with Jordan Spieth.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE