From the fairway on the par-5 sixth hole at Bay Hill on Wednesday, caddie Joe LaCava looked back toward the tee box in time to see Tiger Woods stop suddenly in the middle of his swing.
“What’s going on?” LaCava said, peering into the sun.
ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is the only event on the PGA Tour named after a living player.
He could see Woods flexing his right knee as he paced behind the ball, rubbing his lower back and stretching. Standing over the ball again, Woods let go of the driver before finishing his swing, although the ball wound up in the middle of the fairway.
Was it the left Achilles tendon again? His rebuilt knee? Something else?
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.”
That was the message Woods preached Wednesday on the eve of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his last tournament before the Masters begins on April 5, when he resumes his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus in the majors.
He feels good enough to play golf as many as eight days in a row. Woods revealed that his week started with a trip to Augusta National on Sunday, followed by the two-day Tavistock Cup exhibition at Lake Nona, the pro-am at Bay Hill and then four days of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Even so, his health figures to be a big topic in the two weeks leading to the Masters.
In his last official tournament, Woods played 11 holes in the final round at Doral before he withdrew because of tightness in the left Achilles tendon, the same one that forced him to miss two majors last year.
“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.”
Could it happen again?
“It could,” Woods said. “But hopefully, it won’t.”
Palmer was happy to see Woods at his tournament -- he has never missed Bay Hill except for when he was returning from the crisis in his personal life in 2010. He, too, is curious about the Masters. Both are four-time champions.
“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, FedExCup champion Bill Haas and Graeme McDowell.
Also playing is Ernie Els, trying to recover from two short putts he missed over the last three holes at Innisbrook that might have cost the three-time major champion a trip to the Masters.
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 the Honda Classic.
He has had some familiar moments, such as that 5-iron over the water to 8 feet for eagle and a closing 62 at the Honda Classic. He has had some perplexing moments, mostly with the kind of putts he once routinely made to keep momentum.
The worst statistic for Woods is putting at No. 39, 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.”
Even so, dissecting his statistics reveals a problem area -- inside 125 yards (typically a sand wedge), he averages hitting the ball to just inside 22 feet, which ranks 163rd on the PGA Tour.
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, and it didn’t help when he lost in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship by badly missing a 5-foot birdie putt.
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.
At Bay Hill, Woods has a record six wins and more big moments on the 18th green than any other tournament.
Only three times in his career has Woods won by one shot with a birdie on the 18th hole when playing in the final group. All three happened at Bay Hill, with Palmer looking on.
Even so, the focus for everyone -- Woods included -- is the Masters. It’s a course where he has won four times, and it has the smallest field of the four majors. Someone asked Woods if he thought that was his best chance to win another major.
“Well, considering it’s the first major,” he said, “yes.”