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Focus on Woods shifts to injury

Three times in talking about his left Achilles tendon, Tiger Woods said he was "good to go."

How good?

Woods said it felt the same as it did before he had to withdraw midway through the final round at Doral two weeks ago, back when his health was not a popular topic. He had closed with a 62 in the Honda Classic. His game was on an upward trend, minus the winning.

How long can he go?

Not even Woods can answer that question.

One week after tightness in his Achilles caused him to grimace in pain, limp and then pull out after 11 holes at a World Golf Championship, Woods teed it up at Augusta National for a practice round. Turns out it was a mild strain, and a few days of treatment had him back to feeling normal.

Then, he played a two-day exhibition at Lake Nona, followed by the pro-am Wednesday at Bay Hill. He begins the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday, and likely will wind up playing eight straight days.

Could the Achilles flare up again on Thursday at Bay Hill? Thursday at the Masters?

"It could," Woods said. "But hopefully, it won't."

The next step starts at Bay Hill, on a course where he has won six times. Woods is playing Thursday morning alongside Ernie Els, who witnessed his 62 at the Honda Classic, and Hunter Mahan, with whom he shares a swing coach.

Since his return to golf after the crisis in his private life, Woods withdrew from The Players Championship in 2010 with a neck injury, though he didn't miss any time. Then, he spoke of a "minor injury" to his left leg suffered in the third round of the 2011 Masters that caused him to miss Quail Hollow. He returned at The Players Championship, felt problems in his left Achilles tendon on the opening tee shot and withdrew nine holes and 42 shots later.

He wound up missing three months, including two majors.

Woods had his third WD in as many years at Doral. In the previous 14 years on the PGA Tour, he had withdrawn from tournaments only twice — at Riviera in 2005 when he had the flu, and at Pebble Beach in 1998 when he chose not to return seven months later to complete the rain-plagued tournament.

"It was just tight when I was warming up," Woods said about Doral. "And I did my normal warm-up routine in the gym and everything, and everything was fine. I got to the range, started warming up, started getting tight. And as I said before, I've been through this before. I recognize the signs."

What gave him a sense of calm about the most recent calamity is having been down this road before.

"I've had tightness before, but not to that extent," Woods said. "But treatment afterwards always get it right back to where it should be. And that's one of the reasons why I wasn't really that concerned about it, that I would come back and play these events."

Injuries have been such a big topic recently that Woods caused a stir in his pro-am when he backed off a tee shot on the par-5 sixth hole. He paced behind the ball, grabbed at his lower back and stretched. Then, he took his hand off the club before finishing his swing, though the ball went long and straight.

The concern didn't last long.

Turns out it was a camera click that made Woods flinch.

"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. But after a couple of holes, it loosened up. And I'm good to go now."

Woods has never missed Bay Hill except for when he was returning from the crisis in his personal life in 2010. It typically is his final tuneup before the Masters, where he is a four-time champion.

Another four-time Augusta winner — and the tournament host at Bay Hill — is curious to see if Woods has the game for the first major.

"I think that to win, you have to be on top of your game at Augusta, and there's no question about that," Palmer said. "And so Tiger will have to be. Does it make it more likely that he'll win there? Only in that he will probably work very hard to get his game ... in shape to win. There's certainly that possibility. Will he win? I don't know.

"I'm not sure that I could say that he's in that good of shape right now, but I know he's working for it."

Martin Laird is the defending champion at Bay Hill, where he closed with a 75 for a one-shot win. The field is stronger than expected, with Phil Mickelson, Doral winner Justin Rose, FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas and Graeme McDowell.

Except for leaving Doral early, Woods has shown ample signs that his game is close, at least tee-to-green. He has gone into the back nine with a chance to win at three tournaments this year — Abu Dhabi, Pebble Beach and Honda.

The worst statistic for Woods is putting — he is 39th, which is not bad. The trouble has been distance control, which Woods showed on the par-3 seventh. He stared down a shot, only to slump his shoulders when the ball landed some 40 feet long.

Woods attributes that to hitting the ball flush.

"I'm hitting the ball with less curve," he said. "Hence, it's spending most of its energy going forward, and just the fact that I'm transferring the energy so much more efficiently than I used to."

These are the things Woods will need to get sorted out at Bay Hill, and at the Masters. He was getting annoyed at questions about his putting a month ago. More irritating have been questions about a book written by former swing coach Hank Haney, which goes on sale Tuesday. Copies of the book are being mailed this week to most media, though Woods didn't get any questions about it Wednesday.

Now it's about his health.