April is on his mind. Tiger Woods has made no secret of his desire to be primed and ready for the Masters, a reference he has made at some point during each of his four tournament starts in his latest comeback.
He did it again Sunday after finishing 12th at the Honda Classic, his most promising performance to date and one that gave legitimate legs to the idea that he could be a contender at Augusta National.
"I'm just building toward April,'' Woods said after a final-round 70, which left him even for the tournament. "I'm trying to get myself ready for that, and I feel like I'm right on track.''
So to continue on that path, shouldn't Woods add another tournament to the so-far-unannounced Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times and appears a virtual lock to play?
You can argue this notion either way and not necessarily be wrong. There are compelling reasons to play at Bay Hill and nothing else, given Woods' career-long penchant for less is more and sticking to long-held playing beliefs.
He's not eligible for this week's WGC-Mexico Championship or the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (forget about the opposite field event in the Dominican Republic; it's not happening), which follows the Palmer. That leaves just next week's Valspar Championship or the Houston Open the week before the Masters.
Since Woods has never chosen to play the week before the Masters, that seemingly leaves the Valspar tournament in Palm Harbor, Florida. And why not?
"I've been away from tournament golf for so long that I'm starting to feel the rounds,'' Woods said Sunday. "I'm starting to get into it quicker, feel the pace, feel the shots and get a better sense of it. The more I play tournament golf, the better I'll get.''
To that end, Woods all but suggests that playing more tournaments can only help him. That doesn't necessarily mean he will do so -- the chances seem small -- but here's why he should add next week's Valspar event:
It gives him at least another two rounds to work on the very things he says he cannot replicate. "It's so different playing tournament golf versus playing at home,'' he said at the Genesis Open. "I've just got to play more tournaments.'' What if he chooses to play only the Arnold Palmer Invitational and misses the cut? That would mean just two competitive rounds in the five weeks leading up to the Masters.
Bay Hill is another stout test. Woods has won there eight times and in four of his past five appearances. He has not played the tournament since winning in 2013. But for all of his success there, he does not view the Orlando course as among his favorites. He also has five finishes outside of the top 20 in 16 appearances. The course is not an automatic confidence booster for him.
Woods has never played the Valspar Championship, so venturing outside of his creature-of-habit instincts would serve as another way to challenge himself. The Copperhead course at Innisbrook is no pushover, but it offers a respite from the unrelenting water Woods just saw at the Honda Classic and is not the typical flat Florida golf course. Instead, it has more of a North Carolina feel, with pine trees and unusual undulation for Florida.
Nothing can replicate Augusta National, but the Copperhead course would give Woods a combination of competition and some similar attributes, such as rolling hills that require dealing with undulation from a physical standpoint and hitting shots off uneven lies. Plus, it's simply another week to compete against the best and test his game.
The physical toll of playing consecutive weeks seems at this point a lesser issue. Yes, Woods will forever need to balance tournament golf with rest and rehab. But so far, every indication is that there are no back issues.
"I saw improvement every day, which was nice,'' said Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava. "A lot of good tee shots later in the week, the driver included. He seems to have his distance control back, so that's a good sign. He's working the ball both ways. I do think he's getting a hair tired sometimes in the middle of the round. As he gets more rounds in, as he continues to walk five hours in the grind and the heat and stuff, he'll build up some stamina. The signs are pretty positive and he's healthy.''
There it is again: more rounds. LaCava has quietly been nudging Woods to play more tournaments. He likes the Copperhead course going back to his days working for Fred Couples and believes it suits Woods.
Whether Woods heeds the advice or not, there were plenty of other positives from the Honda Classic to build upon. He's hitting the ball with surprising power. Last week, he was measured with a club head speed of 128.42 mph at one point, which Golf Channel noted would have led the PGA Tour every year going back to when the statistic was first measured in 2007.
On Sunday, he hit 14 greens in regulation, a huge improvement when you consider he hit just 16 in 36 holes the week before at Riviera.
His proximity to the hole of 29 feet, 3 inches led the field and is an excellent sign that his iron play is coming around. But that stat only measures greens hit in regulation, and Woods had trouble with the "Bear Trap'' -- the 15th, 16th and 17th holes -- at PGA National. For the tournament, he played those 12 holes in 8 over par. He played them over par every day, and on the weekend he was 5 over.
So Woods has some issues with hitting shots under duress, something that can only be addressed by doing so when it matters. Woods trailed winner Justin Thomas by eight strokes -- the number of strokes he was over par on that trio of holes at PGA National.
"I feel like each time out I've gotten better and I've gotten more of a feel for playing tournament golf,'' Woods said after the Honda. "The last couple days, it felt easy to play tournament golf. The warm-up felt good. I get into the flow of the round. I could find the rhythm of the round faster. The more golf I'm playing tournament-wise, the faster I'm able to click into the feel of the round.''
There, he said it again. Woods' own conclusion is that more tournaments are better. Playing just one more tournament in the next five weeks leading up to the Masters doesn't seem like enough. Adding a second could be just what he needs.