Tiger Woods Tunes Up for U.S. Open at Players Championship

Tiger Woods practiced Monday for the first time since last month's Masters

If you buy into the PGA Tour’s pitch about the Players Championship being golf’s “fifth major,” perhaps Tiger Woods can convince you otherwise. Returning to competition for the first time since injuring his knee at the Masters in April, Woods said Tuesday that the TPC Sawgrass tilt will help him get into playing shape for next month’s U.S. Open.

“The whole idea is that I peak four times a year,” Woods told reporters yesterday after playing nine holes of golf for the first time since finishing T4 at the Masters. “I’m trying to get ready for [the Open] and I need some playing time.”

Tim Finchem and the boys at nearby tour HQ may have covered their ears when No. 8 termed the richest tourney in golf prep work, while fourth-ranked Phil Mickelson took to the podium to support the prestige of the Players.

“I feel like since I’ve been out on tour that this is one of the tournaments that I would like to win the most right along with the majors,” Lefty said Tuesday.

Despite such praise for the Ponte Vedra Beach contest, Woods — who won the event 10 years ago but has enjoyed little success at the venue since — will use the event to gain confidence and get in some much-needed reps. If you believe his words, you probably shouldn’t expect a whole lot from him this week.

Sure, Sean Foley’s prize student said he continued to have his eyes on the prize, but some of his words seemed as robotic as his golf swing has at times since he began working with the swing maestro last year.

“Well, [my expectations are the] same as always, try and win the event,” Woods said. “Nothing has changed.”

Maybe not since Monday, when Woods practiced for the first time since tweaking his knee in Augusta. But, really, everything is different for the guy with 14 major championships and creaky, 35-year-old wheels. He’s made a paltry (for him) $571,000 this year, (69th in the world — same as his driving distance) and sits 186th (an estimate since he hasn’t played enough for official ranking) in total driving stats. While 47th in putting, Woods made a compelling case that he expected his work on the greens would not get much better any time soon.

“[My putting is] not very good, quite frankly,” he said. “I haven’t chipped it as much, I haven’t putted as much because I’ve been working on my full swing. That’s part of the trade off. You can’t do all of the above.”

As for his mental state, Woods intimated that his winless streak — which stretches back to November 2009 — was wearing on him. Had he not experienced a dry spell before, his current 0-fer would be “just brutal,” he said.

“The period I went through in ’97 through ’99 was brutal because I had never gone through a stretch like that ever,” Woods stated. “I made changes with [former coach] Butch [Harmon] for the very first time back in ’95, but I still won junior events, amateur events. I was still able to win.”

About his dizzying descent from the top of the golf rankings leaderboard to his current spot, Woods said there was only one remedy for that.

“I miss winning,” he said. “That’s how you get to be No. 1, that’s how you maintain it. You got to win golf tournaments.”

If Woods’ current words and history at the Players are any indication (he’s finished in the top 10 once since 2002 and a neck injury forced him to withdraw from last year’s competition), this will not be the week he begins his climb back to the throne.

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