ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods never reveals much about himself publicly with the spoken word, but his body almost never stops speaking to us.
When it comes to body language, he is among the most eloquent players on Tour.
Woods isn’t like world No. 1 Luke Donald. You wouldn’t know when Donald hits a bad shot looking at that marvelous pose of his after the ball leaves his club. It is often difficult to tell if he just striped it down the middle or pulled it into the woods when he’s lingering in that most elegant follow through. Donald’s body doesn’t betray his disappointments on the course the way Woods does.
Woods has practically invented his own sign language.
We know what he’s thinking, or at least we think we do, after he strikes a bad shot, even if we’re not within ear shot. He’ll thump the ground with his club, he’ll point left, or right, with palpable disgust. He’ll stick his hands on his hips and twist a dozen muscles in his face into angry knots. He’s a manifesto of unwritten words.
When Woods is in command, we know that, too. Woods was stalking his ball like the days of old across PGA National in that sizzling Sunday finish at the Honda Classic earlier this month. His body language told us he was reveling in the return of his powers shooting that 62.
And that brings us to Wednesday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Woods told us he’s feeling good in the middle of this most arduous week, but his body told us something else. His body told us he’s pretty much day-to-day on the golf course, more so than most other tour pros.
At the sixth tee in Wednesday’s pro-am, Woods stopped abruptly in the middle of his downswing.
And his fans there got a tiny scare.
“I guess one of the so-called professional photographers took a picture right in the middle of my downswing,” Woods said. “I stopped it, and then felt a pretty good twinge in my back. Walked it off, and then tried to hit one down there, hit it in the fairway, but didn't feel very good.”
Woods, 10 days removed from withdrawing in the final round at Doral with a strained left Achilles tendon, limped off the sixth tee at Bay Hill.
“After a couple of holes, it loosened up, and I'm good to go now,” Woods said.
For Woods, for the folks who want to see him renew his major championship prowess, this has to be the maddening X-factor, this uncertainty over how his body will hold up the rest of his career. We’ve seen him limp off a golf course three times in two years now, twice at The Players Championship.
Woods was asked after the pro-am if he’s concerned the Achilles could strain without warning.
“It could, but hopefully it won’t,” he said.
His body isn’t just speaking to us. It’s speaking to him, and he’s listening a lot more intently than he ever did. That’s why he withdrew from Doral with seven holes to go.
“It’s one of those things where I just continue training, continue preparing, and just kind of monitor things a little bit more than I used to,” Woods said. “Because I used to be able to just kind of play through it. But then again, that also set me back, and one of the reasons I had surgeries is that I would ignore those, and just kind of play through it. I had success, but the problem is, it was also detriment at the same time physically.”
After Wednesday’s pro-am, Woods said he’s ready to finish off a sturdy test this week that is even more rigorous than we realized. He said he played a practice round at Augusta National on Sunday. With two rounds of the Tavistock Cup, with the Arnold Palmer Invitational’s pro-am and four competitive rounds, that means Woods could play eight consecutive days.
With four knee surgeries behind him, with the Achilles’ issue, it will be a telling week.
“I feel great, and that's the nice thing about getting treatment for three days, just getting off of it and just working on it two or three times a day,” Woods said.
How is Woods feeling going into a bid to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the seventh time in his career?
“Good to go,” Woods said.
His body will tell us more this week. If Woods holds up, and his play keeps elevating, look out in two weeks at the Masters. His swing’s getting so much sharper. If his putting fully kicks in, a fifth Masters title moves within reach.
Palmer will be watching Woods this week for signs he’s ready for the Masters.
“I haven’t been close to Tiger, other than reading the papers,” Palmer said. “I have not talked to him personally in some time, and I'm watching him swing, and I'm watching him play. I see some moments of the old-fashioned Tiger that is very good.
“I see some swing changes from time to time that he is employing, and I question that. But I'm like everyone else in this room, or anywhere that's watching him play. We look for things that are different, and I see some difference in his swing.
“But again, I can't tell you just what those things are, or what he's thinking about how he's going to continue to play. I think he's strong enough, and he's smart enough, and he's got all of the equipment to do the things that he always did do. I think it's just a matter of getting it in the proper order to make him play the kind of golf that he played in the past 20 years.
“So, if were making a prediction, I would say, look out, because one of these days, he's going to come back and play pretty good golf.”
Like the rest of us, Palmer will learn more from what Tiger’s body reveals than what his words reveal.
Watch highlights and behind-the-scene action from the Arnold Palmer Invitational pro-am Wednesday at 5 and 9PM ET.