Tiger Woods is finally playing the way many pros were expecting before his return

Tiger Woods finished 12th at the Honda Classic last week after shooting an even-par 280. As far as Woods' historic performances go, it was not among the best. But considering where we're at with Woods these days, it was one of the more meaningful four-round events he's played in the last decade.

The reason it was meaningful is because we finally got a public dose of the whispers we've been hearing behind the scenes for months. Woods' "tournament golf" finally matched what he's apparently been doing on those crisp, long practice days in Florida when he tees it up with his colleagues.

McIlroy said recently that he played with Woods in November on Thanksgiving morning.

"I drove away thinking: 'This is unbelievable,'" McIlroy told the Irish Independent. "It was the best I've seen him play. In terms of how he drove and controlled the ball -- he didn't miss a shot for the first 10 holes. He was five-under par and I was like: 'Where has this come from?' From a guy that I heard was struggling to walk at the Presidents Cup! So yeah, great. It's good to have him back. I think the game of golf is always better with him around."

A lot of players are often quick to stroke Woods' private perception. They may be in awe of getting to tee it up with Big Cat or enjoy the spotlight of being one of the "Guys Tiger Can Trust" in the media. That's not McIlroy. He would have either deferred or been truthful had Woods' game not added up. Instead, he didn't miss a shot. This is unbelievable.

There were other things noted by other golfers who played with him, too. Golfers who were not incentivized in any way to talk Woods up or bolster his game. Some have been talked about in public. Some have not. And yet, it was so difficult for those of us on the other side of it to believe. Why wouldn't it be? Woods has had four back surgeries. He had his spine fused together last April.

So you'll have to excuse us for a sense of disbelief following the show Woods put on at the Honda Classic. It's not that we didn't trust McIlroy and others. It's just that after so many false starts, it was much easier to step back and wait than it was to go all in. And here's the thing, even if we'd gone all in, who could have expected Woods to do this in his third tournament back?

Proximity to the hole: First in the field
Club head speed: First
Driving distance: Third
Strokes gained on approach shots: 15th

Those numbers don't make any sense! Woods looked like a Web.com Tour star heat-checking all over the yard because he never really gets a chance to show his stuff off to the big boys. During Woods' last fully healthy season in 2013, his club head speed was 118 MPH. That ranked 28th on the PGA Tour. So far this year it's 122 MPH, and he touched 128 MPH on Saturday during Round 3. 

I feel as if I need to reiterate this statement because it's getting lost on people: He's had four back surgeries in the interim and part of his spine removed. He looks like a 23-year-old who's never taken a day off! It was (and is) ludicrous.

But it's also real. The numbers don't lie. And now that we've seen a front-facing Tiger that matches the backstage rehearsal, the stakes have been raised. Woods knows this better than anyone.

"My expectations have gone up," Woods said after his 70 on Sunday at PGA National. "I'm hitting the ball better. I knew I could putt it, I know I could chip it, but I didn't know how well I was going to hit it."

The reality was that he didn't hit it very well in his first two events. He lost strokes to the field from tee to green in three of his first six measured rounds at the Farmers Insurance Open and Genesis Open. He gained them in every single round at the Honda Classic, and in three rounds, he gained a stroke or more on his competitors. That's astounding.

"I feel very happy the way I played the entire week," added Woods. "I really controlled my ball flight. This wind, you can get exposed pretty easily and I felt like I had control. The solid thing about this week is I missed the ball in the correct spots, and I had better control of my ball and that allowed me to get up-and-down."

It was fascinating to watch Woods all week. I watched nearly every shot he hit, and he looked like a machine. A machine that has endure a lot of maintenance. Of course, all of this is nothing but an appetizer for the main event at Augusta National in just over a month. Nothing but a warm-up, but Woods said he's starting to feel himself.

"I know it's been a long time, but I remember how to do this," Woods said about being in contention. "I know how to hit shots and that part, I wasn't worried about that part. I wasn't worried about coming down the stretch, how I was going to feel.

"Same as Torrey, same as L.A., same here, I'm just building towards April. That's what I told you guys at the very outset, I'm trying to get myself ready for that and I feel like I'm right on track for that."

And for the first time all year, he actually looked the part.

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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