PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – You won’t find any azaleas blooming along PGA National’s Champion Course this week.
No dogwoods, either.
But if you’re Tiger Woods, you can almost smell them anyway.
Or imagine draws on the practice range here turning around the bend at No. 13 at Augusta National.
Or high fades settling down on the 15th green on a Masters Sunday.
Woods says the specter of the Masters looms strong now with the PGA Tour schedule turning to the Honda Classic and this week’s start of the Florida swing.
“Once we get to Florida, I think we're all thinking about our way to Augusta,” Woods said after his pro-am round Wednesday. “Some guys usually start at Doral, some guys start here, but once we get to Florida, now most of the guys are getting pretty serious about their prep to Augusta.”
Phil Mickelson can feel it, too, as he makes his first start at the Honda Classic in a dozen years.
“This is kind of where guys like myself and others are getting geared up for that event,” Mickelson said. “It’s important to get competitive, get sharp mentally and focused, and play some good golf, get in contention.”
That is something Woods hasn’t done in his sluggish beginning to 2014. In his two starts this year, he has tied for 41st at the Omega Dubai Masters and failed to make the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open. There’s the usual fretting and angst among analysts over Woods’ lack of form. Woods posted a 79 at one of his favorite venues, Torrey Pines, in his last PGA Tour start.
His pedestrian start is fueling speculation that at 38 Woods is more beatable than ever despite his five wins a year ago. It’s fueling speculation that major championship titles will be harder to come by. Woods, after all, is looking for his first major championship victory since ’08, his first Masters title since ’05.
“I think now the players really believe that, yes, Tiger is terrific, and he won five times last year, and he was really good, but he was beatable,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said. “Before, it was like, if he had his A-game, you could just kiss it off. It wasn't going to happen. He was just so much better than everybody, and so much better under pressure, and so much better on Sundays, and so much better in the majors. It was not a fair fight. Now, it’s a fair fight.”
Woods is looking for his first top-10 finish this year. If he doesn’t get it, alarms are sure to go off among the experts. Woods has never failed to finish among the top 10 in his first three starts in his 18 years as a pro.
Even Notah Begay, the NBC course reporter who knows Woods’ game as well as any analyst, recognizes a narrowing of the gap between Woods and other top players. He sees Woods less able to contend when he’s not on his game.
“I think his game has come back down to earth a little bit,” Begay said. “I do think he has the ability to create that separation, and he doesn't necessarily have to have his A-game. But it used to be that he could be somewhat off of his game and still finish in the top 10. If you just look at his top-10 performances over the last two or three years, they're not as high of a percentage as they were prior to the scandal.”
Woods is making just his third start at the Honda Classic. He was brilliant closing with a 62 in his first year in the field in 2012, nearly catching Rory McIlroy after starting the final round nine shots back. Last year, he was ordinary at PGA National, tying for 37th.
A victory this week does more than soothe the angst around Woods’ sluggish start. It sends a message he is ready for the year’s first major. He has never made the Masters his first win in any season. All four years he won a green jacket, he took at least one win with him to Augusta National.
Woods played his pro-am Wednesday with swing coach Sean Foley in tow. He said he isn’t focused on form. He’s focused on winning.
“It feels good,” Woods said about his overall game. “I was pleasantly surprised how well I was hitting it today, and just getting a feel for the greens and how the short game is playing out of this grass, versus up at Medalist.”
What Woods ultimately wants is the feeling he’s ready to win the Masters.