2019 Players Championship: Wiser Tiger Woods more selective with when to practice and play

I'm not sure we're prepared as a golf community with what to do with a sometimes-healthy Tiger Woods. The 80-time PGA Tour winner has been all in or all out when it comes to injuries over the last few years. He's either been on the shelf for years at a time or playing frequently (and winning) like he did in 2018.

He's never really been in between those two as he appears to be right now. 

Woods, of course, missed the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational last week with a stiff neck that he said this week at the Players Championship is fine. But my brain can't properly consume a conservative Woods giving his body an extra week of rest to properly prep for one of the first truly big events of the year. He's always been pedal to the floor or ... on the floor clutching one of his maligned body parts. 

So is this part of Big Cat 3.0 (or whatever version we're on)?

"I'm 43 with four back surgeries, so just manage what I have and understand that I'm going to have good weeks and bad weeks and try and manage as best I possibly can and not push it," Woods said this week at TPC Sawgrass. "There are times when over the years I pushed it, pushed it through a few things, and I've won a few tournaments doing it that way, but also I've cost myself a few years here and there because of it."

That sound you hear is the wisdom that comes from 20 years on the PGA Tour. A wisdom that probably would have served him well 15 years ago even though it was drowned out by his killer mentality and otherworldly talent. A wisdom that can often only be obtained with age.

"I know that I can play the game again," Woods said. "That last year was, we'll see if I can even play. I know I can play again, I know I can win a golf tournament, and so I know I can compete at the highest level. So that's all good. Now it's about keeping it consistent, keeping my body solid and fresh and pliable and athletic. These are all things that are a little bit more difficult as you progress in age, and these are the challenges I'm going to be facing going forward. 

"The fact that I can't sit out there and practice for eight to 12 hours like I used to and I got to pick my days and I got to pick my hours, and on top of that there are times when I just can't do it and I got to shut it down, just like I did last week, I had to shut it down for the week and get ready for this week."

This is the part I'm unfamiliar with. The shutting it down for the sake of the bigger picture. The peering into the future and realizing that, sure, emptying the tank for Bay Hill might be heroic or fun but it isn't smart or sustainable. 

The other part of Woods' game that has lacked in 2019 (other than his health) is his putting. He doesn't have enough rounds to qualify, but if he did he would rank 80th on the PGA Tour in putting. Not bad but not the direction he wants to go in. He said taking care of his body like so is related to taking care of his flat stick.

"As my neck got a little bit tighter, yeah, I didn't feel comfortable with my putting, but it was -- my putting was uncomfortable going into that point," said Woods. "It just made it worse."

It's not just the putter, either.

"(My neck is) not painful now," he added. "It was getting to the point where it was affecting my setup, my backswing, my through swing. It was just gradually getting worse. That's just because my lower back is fused, and so the stress has to go somewhere if I don't have movement, and so it's very important for me going forward since the surgery to keep pliable or else the stress is going to go somewhere else."

For someone who has had four back surgeries, this point is paramount. Necks and backs are connected, and normally one affects the other. Woods said that though the neck is of some concern, the lower back is the bigger issue, both now and going into the future.

"I've got to keep that moving, even though it's fixed," Woods said. "I've got to keep all the other structures pliable, and that's one of the issues of having a procedure like I did, that the forces have to go somewhere. I've got to stay fit, I've got to stay on it, and have to stay as loose as I possibly can for as long as I play out here."

So what do we expect from a seemingly wiser Woods this week? He's the only player in the field who has won this tournament when it was played in both May (2013) and March (2001), and he's coming in off a T10 in his last start (the WGC-Mexico Championship) and a T11 here last year. All of the trends point toward a good performance, even if he's taken a little extra time to get there.

I'm still in a bit of "let's see this play out and see if the neck and back really are fine" mode when it comes to Woods, but if he truly is good, there's no reason he can't contend at a track where you absolutely cannot fake it.

"It's a very simple formula here: Hit it good. It's not real complicated," said Woods, who is second all time in career earnings (Sergio Garcia is first). "The golf course is one that Pete (Dye) has set up to intimidate you visually. You have to overcome that part of it. And no, you can't really play poorly and win this event."

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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