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Hawk's Nest: Will Tiger make a Texas pit stop?

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“I’ve got ladies at the grocery stores putting their hand on me and going, ‘Really praying for you. How are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘My dog didn’t die. I’ll be OK. I’ll survive. It happens.’” – on how he is dealing with his Masters loss  - 

Call me a dunce, or at the very least, call this a silly hunch, but if Tiger Woods doesn’t regain his once-customary form this week at Arnie’s Place, where he’s won only eight times, I suspect he might play in the Shell Houston Open – the week before the Masters.

My God, Hawkins, you’ve finally lost whatever mind you had left. Tiger Woods doesn’t play the week before a major championship. He hasn’t played a PGA Tour event in Texas since 2005 – a year before his old man passed away! Do us a favor…. lay off the hallucinogens next time before you sit down to write.

Hmmm, funny you mention 2005. It’s the last time Woods won the Masters, but the Lone Star State has nothing to do with it. The man needs another start, and besides, the long-prescribed, pre-major routine hasn’t exactly shortened his climb up Mount Nicklaus in recent years.

Time to mix things up, folks. Even Eldrick Almighty can see that.

What about those back spasms? Couldn’t an extra event do more harm than good?

Of course, but there are several things to take into consideration here. One, Tiger wasn’t exactly burning it up before he withdrew at the Honda – his last top-10 was at The Barclays almost seven months ago. Healthy or hurt, he hasn’t come close to performing at his highest level, so the possibility of four competitive rounds in Houston is well worth whatever risk might exist.

Two, he made it through 72 holes at Doral without needing a wheelchair. Back spasms, like college girlfriends, have a tendency to come and go without reason or notification.

Three, you can aggravate an injury practicing or lifting weights as easily as you can while playing in a real event. In this context, the back is a non-issue.

Dude, I hear you, but I just counted the number of cards in your deck and I came up with 49. Tiger Woods is the most stubborn man on earth. He has never played in the Houston Tour stop and he never changes his schedule. Hydrant or high water, the man sticks with what got him to Superior City.

Au contraire, gophaire. Red Shirt has made two significant scheduling adjustments in the last three years. Who can forget that he participated in the 2011 Open, finishing T-30 in his lone career appearance in the Fall Series? And as much as the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am has annoyed him over the years, Tiger’s very next Tour start occurred four months later in the hit-and-giggle at Pebble Beach.

Big deal. That was two years ago.

True, but there was also this easy-to-miss breadcrumb from Woods’ pre-tournament news conference at the Honda. Asked if he might do anything different in his preparation for the Masters, Tiger responded: “Still looking into that, yeah. Still looking to possibly make some changes going in there.”

Well, it doesn’t exactly sound like he’s engraved it into his daytimer.

Agreed. If Tiger wins at Bay Hill for the ninth time, I can see him chilling out in Jupiter and gassing up his confidence, not his jet. But if he slops together another out-of-it-by-Sunday-afternoon performance like he’s been doing for a while, Houston becomes a possibility. A very real possibility.

NO SUBJECT IN pro golf is more aggravating or persistent than the slow-play issue. At the recreational level, pace is a problem for different reasons: poorly spaced tee times, 15 handicaps looking for balls, a lack of awareness, etc. None of those scourges, however, exist on the PGA Tour. Every professional tortoise knows he’s slow.

So when Kevin Na says things like, “[Given] what we’re playing for and what’s on the line, how much more can you really expect,” I know a cop-out when I smell one. Talk about faulty rationalization – slow play is as much a violation of golf’s etiquette as stepping in someone’s putting line or hitting out of turn.

Never mind that it’s a rule the Tour simply doesn’t enforce. Na is slow because he’s allowed to be, enabled by the lack of a sufficient deterrent, and he takes advantage of that situation to the detriment of his fellow competitors.

When he’s playing in the final group, as was the case Saturday at Innisbrook, Na doesn’t hold up the groups behind him because there are none, but it’s fair to think he knocked Robert Garrigus out of his rhythm during their 36 holes together over the weekend. Garrigus took the high road, claiming Na has gotten quicker since the fiasco at the 2012 Players Championship.

The fact of the matter is, Na and Garrigus were on the clock for most of the third round’s back nine, and Garrigus is no snail. Besides, that high road becomes the path of least resistance when you hold the 54-hole lead – and you’re paired with the same guy the following afternoon. No need to compound the Sunday pressure with a little personal friction.

“I even had a little talk with him on the range,” Na said, referring to an exchange with Garrigus before the final round. “I’m like, ‘Thanks for backing me up,’ and he said, ‘No problem, bud.’ He felt like it wasn’t an issue. For as much criticism as I got, I hope people talk about how we were waiting on every hole [Sunday].

“Robert was 5 over on the front and I was 3 over, and we were waiting on every shot. If people don’t talk about that, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Slow Tour pros tend to be refreshingly honest but blithely unapologetic. They have a habit of justifying their poor pace by saying they’re trying to get faster – or citing instances when others are guilty of the same crime. Seeing how his lone Tour victory occurred during the 2011 Fall Series, perhaps Na remains winless in 240 regular-season starts because of the mental burden that comes with being a renowned tortoise.

The hare doesn’t always finish first, but he doesn’t step all over anybody else’s chances, either. Na has become his own worst enemy – a talented player whose greatest liability is loitering between his ears.

ONCE UPON A time, Bay Hill was as close to a must-play as there was on the Florida swing. A couple of questionable course setups in the mid-2000s led to some defections, however, and this week, eight of the top 17 players in the world ranking will be absent.

Apparently, thanking Mr. Palmer for all he did isn’t as important as it used to be.

I’m half-kidding, sort of, but what I don’t understand is the weak field last week. In terms of visuals off the tee, shot-making demands and overall difficulty, Innisbrook bears a stronger resemblance to Augusta National than anywhere else on the March docket. I’m not saying it’s a dead ringer, but if you’re looking to win the year’s first major, you can do worse than to take a test drive at Palm Harbor.

What we ended up with was a classic case of Sunday afternoon hot potato – a bunch of guys who rarely win (or haven’t won at all) passing the lead back and forth, almost everyone sliding backwards, reviving the hopes of infrequent winners (Na, Garrigus) who’d disappeared from contention an hour earlier.

You can call it a fascinating mess and say John Senden earned the victory a lot more than anyone gave it to him – and you’d be right. You can also wonder why more top-tier guys didn’t show up. Either way, Innisbrook proved itself once again as the most underrated venue on the PGA Tour.

FOR THOSE WHO might have missed it or have simply forgotten, the points system used to compose the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team remains basically the same as that used by victorious 2008 skipper Paul Azinger. Of utmost importance is that players receive no credit for anything they did during the 2013 season – other than their performances in the four majors.

Tiger and those five victories? Meaningless. Woods was 35th in last week’s standings, and I must admit, it looks a bit funny to see him 18 spots behind Brian Stuard. There are five major champions in the U.S. top nine: Bubba Watson, Jason Dufner, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson and Webb Simpson. Jordan Spieth, meanwhile, for all he has done since last summer, ranks 13th.

Because the ’08 and ’10 teams were very strong representations of America’s best, I never had a reason to question the current system, although it’s definitely on my keep-an-eye-on list now. Yes, it’s still very early in the process, but to give zero points for last year’s World Golf Championships and FedEx Cup playoff events – that doesn’t make sense.

For instance, Tiger’s eight-stroke victory last August at Firestone should be worth something if Ryan Moore (currently 10th) earned more than half of his 2,161 points for beating a mediocre field 2 ½ months later at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur. Big picture? This is another reason not to love the Tour’s wraparound season – turning a bunch of Fall Series events into official tournaments that the top-tier guys generally ignore.

Hmmm … maybe I just came up with another reason why Tiger should play Houston.