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Sunday, February 2, 2014
Updated: February 3, 1:40 PM ET
Tiger playing way into majors shape

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Back home, now that the Super Bowl is complete, some will turn their attention to when pitchers and catchers report to baseball camp. It is an annual rite of spring, a signal that the season is … still six weeks away!

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods said he felt his game was coming around at the end of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He did birdie his final three holes in Sunday's final round.

There is no such warm-up period in golf, as you are what the scorecard says you are, the numbers written in pencil the only measure.

So far, they haven't been so good for Tiger Woods.

In seven official rounds, just one has been in the 60s, and that was basically achieved over nine holes, with some incredible scrambling involved during the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

There have been two rounds over par, including the 79 at Torrey Pines that got him bounced a day early and was among his five worst rounds as a professional.

For the first time in his career, he has begun a year without posting a top-20 finish in either of his first two tournaments. In nine of 18 years, he was victorious in at least one of his two opening starts, and in three of those years he won them both.

Now he's got roughly a month to prepare for his next start, and there are understandably questions about what is going on.

How about this simple explanation: spring training.

Like the baseball players who are set to convene at camps in Florida and Arizona in the coming weeks, Woods appears to be working his way into playing condition, figuring out what works and what doesn't, honing the various aspects of a game that is constantly evolving. The calendar turned to 2014 and he didn't want to do too much too soon.

The problem is, nobody wants to hear it when it comes to Woods.

The No. 1-ranked player in the world has long maintained that he shows up to win. But in putting the pieces together over the past two weeks from his words and actions, he appears to have deviated from that plan of action.

"It's just part of the process," Woods said Friday after a horrible driving day led to a 73 at Emirates Golf Club and dropped him 8 shots out of the lead. "I took a long break there and didn't really do anything much. Just trying to get my body organized and that part materialized and that's nice. Now I just need to get the game to come around."

Read between the lines, because Woods is never going to come out and say it.

There is clearly a part of him that believed his game would come around at venues where he's had success. Starting at Torrey Pines, where he has eight victories, followed by Emirates Golf Club, where he has two, is a pretty good way to begin the year. The familiarity alone is a plus.

But as Woods proved -- and it should put all the talk to rest that he easily piles up victories at venues where he's had success -- it doesn't matter if your game is missing.

After the first round at Torrey Pines, an even-par 72 on a brutish South Course, Woods maintained that "I didn't feel that rusty, I felt that I hit a lot of good shots." A day later, when he missed numerous scoring opportunities on the easier North Course, he again shied away from such talk. "I wouldn't say it's rusty, it was just a fraction off."

A day later he shot 79 and was clearly off his game, having one remarkable stretch in which he went seven consecutive holes without making a par and played them in 9 over.

That happens in golf, just not to Woods.

After a 2013 season in which Woods won five times but also suffered back and elbow injuries, it appears his first priority in 2014 was to assure a healthy body and not overdo the golf activities.

Throw in the holidays with his kids, a trip to France with girlfriend and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn for a competition as well as her knee surgery in the aftermath, and then likely spending time in the gym rather than on the course … well, maybe the result is going to be a tie for 80th and a tie for 41st.

It's no excuse, because Woods has always prided himself on being prepared to win, but maybe now, at age 38, his chances to win majors dwindling and with regular victories meaning less, it makes sense.

Woods could never come out and say he was using these tournaments to get reps and work his game back into shape. It works for some in golf and happens all the time. But not for Woods. And he certainly wasn't going to admit that in Dubai, where he was being paid a hefty sum to play.

After the final round Sunday, Woods appeared relatively upbeat. He had birdied the last three holes and admitted finding a few things in his swing had occurred too late. He acknowledged a need to work on his chipping and long putting. There seemed a sense of relief that an adjustment in his grip led to better driving over the weekend.

After returning home from a Tuesday trip to India, Woods could, in theory, spend the rest of the time between now and the Masters in Florida. All indications are he'll skip the WGC-Accenture Match Play, meaning his next start would be near his Jupiter, Fla., home for the Honda Classic.

He won't even have to leave the state for tournaments at Doral and Bay Hill, where he will be the defending champion in each.

By then, it will be important to show some form, to get into a competitive mindset with an eye on the Masters, which begins April 10.

Like the baseball players who will soon be descending on Woods' home state, the real goal is to be ready by April.