PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Listen to what Tiger Woods said Sunday after finishing the Honda Classic.
Forget his even-par 70.
Forget his 12th-place finish, his best in a PGA Tour event in 30 months.
Forget his 128 mph swing speed, which ranks him ahead of so many of the fastest, strongest and longest young players in the game today.
Forget all of that and listen to what he said leaving here . . .
“The last couple days, it felt easy to play tournament golf,” Woods said.
That’s the real story here this week.
That is the giant stride Woods made here this week. It’s the giant dose of hope he created with the Masters six weeks away. It’s the giant promise he generated in reawakening the possibility that he really may not be done making history.
It felt “easy” to play tournament golf again.
There’s a mountain of achievement in those words, because this game has looked so damn hard and painful for him to play for so long.
What we saw this week was encouraging, but what we didn’t see was almost as encouraging.
No wincing in discomfort.
No doubling over in pain, no limping.
In just his third PGA Tour start after his fourth back surgery, a fusion that left a lot of us thinking we might never see him play again, Woods is way, way ahead of even his own schedule.
Listen . . .
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Woods said of coming back this year. “My expectations have gone up.”
So have everyone else’s.
There was something special in this week’s performance that will make too many of us rush too far ahead, but that was the story this week. Tiger speeded things up. He dramatically changed the narrative around him with his unexpected run into contention.
He made those six weeks until the Masters suddenly seem like enough time to get himself ready to compete for a green jacket again.
That seems crazy given where he was a few short months ago, but listen . . .
“I'm just building towards April,” Woods said. “I'm trying to get myself ready for that, and I feel like I'm right on track for that.”
Tiger got himself on track on an extremely penal golf course at PGA National, in blustery winds that magnified misses and exposed imprecise ball striking.
Woods didn’t win this week, but he finished third in driving distance at 319 yards per drive.
His driver may not be perfect, but it’s no longer a liability. It’s a weapon again.
His iron play got a whole lot better this week. He was first in proximity to the hole this week. Yeah, nobody hit it closer. He was 10th in hitting greens in regulation.
He hit 14 greens in regulation Sunday, most in a round since he tied for 10th at the Wyndham Championship in the summer of 2015. His 12th-place finish overall here, by the way, was his best since then.
The short game’s still looking good. He was T-11 in scrambling.
His putter didn’t allow him to take advantage of all those improvements. He was 18th in strokes gained putting.
Mostly, Woods got beat by the Bear Trap this week. He dumped a shot in the water Sunday at the 15th, cutting his shot too much into the wind there. It was his second rinsed shot there this week, leading to his second double bogey there.
Woods was 8 over through the Bear Trap’s trio of holes (Nos. 15-17) for the week.
He was 8 under everywhere else.
After missing the cut at the Genesis Open last week, where he was so wild off the tee and with his iron play, the question this week was whether he could simply make the cut.
He didn’t win this week, but he changed the nature of the questions about what may lie ahead for him.
Listen . . .
“I know it's been a long time, but I remember how to do this,” Woods said.
Joey LaCava, Woods’ caddie, knows how the expectations will change now.
“I see strides, good positive things going forward,” LaCava said. “I didn’t want to panic when he didn’t play well at LA last week, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but it’s nice to see him moving forward. I think he hit the ball better every day this week.
LaCava said Woods seemed to get tired in the middle of Sunday’s round. He said being gym fit and golf fit walking 72 holes are different things. It’s another area where Woods can get better.
Mostly, LaCava liked how Woods reacted with his name climbing the leaderboard going into the weekend.
“It’s nice to see him get the juices flowing and get amped up a little bit and hit the ball farther,” LaCava said. “You can see a difference in mentality.
Woods could feel it.
Just listen . . .
“I had control of my game,” he said.
There’s so much promise in those words.