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The closing days in February -- and all of March -- are a fantastic time to be a sports fan in Florida.
The Florida Gators are currently the No. 1-ranked team in college basketball. The Miami Heat are in position to make a run at a third straight NBA title. Spring training has fully engulfed the Sunshine State, which means the Marlins haven't lost any official games yet.
Most exciting to Numbers Game, however, is the PGA Tour's Florida swing, which features elite fields and some of the tour's best venues. The swing, of course, also signals that the Masters is just around the corner, and if the final of last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play is a harbinger of things to come, golf is in for a spectacular 2014.
The elite field at this week's Honda Classic includes the world's top-ranked player, Tiger Woods, who will try to right some of the wrongs from his first two official starts of the year.
Tiger has teed it up twice so far in 2014, and had unexpectedly poor finishes at courses where he enjoyed great success in the past. After receiving the dreaded "MDF" distinction for the first time at Torrey Pines, Woods finished an unremarkable T-41 in Dubai on the European Tour.
As you might expect, Woods didn't do much of anything well statistically in either event. Tiger has never hit a ton of fairways off the tee, but at 43 percent at Torrey and 54 percent in Dubai, he was well off what he did last season on the PGA Tour (63 percent).
Woods' average approach shot proximity was 5 feet worse at Torrey Pines than what he did on average last season, and his strokes gained putting average of minus-0.22 per round was especially harmful. Woods was in the top 25 on tour in that statistic in 2013, at plus-0.42 per round.
In Dubai, Tiger hit 65 percent of his greens in regulation -- just about even with his PGA Tour average last season (68 percent). He didn't putt particularly well, though. His rate of 1.83 putts per GIR was 65th in the field for the week.
Tiger said recently that, "We're all just building toward that one week in April." His slow start doesn't appear to be of great concern to him, but should Woods have another unremarkable performance this week at the Honda Classic, he would enter personally uncharted territory at this stage of the young season.
This is Woods' 18th full season as a professional. In each of his previous 17, Tiger had at least one top-20 finish through three official worldwide starts. In fact, in all but one year (2011), Tiger had at least one finish of T-6 or better through three starts. Nine different years, he won at least once in that opening stretch.
And consider this: From 1997 to 2008, in Woods' first three official starts of the year, only one time did he finish outside the top 20 -- at the weather-shortened 1999 Pebble Beach Pro-Am. (That's not counting two withdrawals.) In that same collection of tournaments, he won 13 times.
Tiger obviously hasn't demolished fields in recent years as he did at his world-wrecking zenith, but since 2009, it's not like he's been a total slouch at these early events, either. In that same early sample from 2009 to 2013, he's got a win and four top-five finishes.
Tiger will be attempting to right the ship on a course that isn't conducive to low scores. Three of the last four years, PGA National has been the most difficult non-major course on the PGA Tour by average score to par.
In both 2010 and 2011, it played as the second-toughest, period -- major championships included. In 2010, only Pebble Beach the week of the U.S. Open yielded higher scores. In 2011, Royal St. George's was the only course that was tougher.
Question: In the final round of the 2012 Honda Classic, Tiger Woods shot an 8-under-par 62, tying his second-best career score in relation to par in the final round of a PGA Tour event. Where did Woods record his only better final round in relation to par on the PGA Tour?
Answer: A 9-under-par 62 in the final round of the 2002 Disney Golf Classic (Magnolia GC)
Woods' closing 62 in 2012 at this event flies directly in the face of those facts, but his scores at PGA National last year tend to corroborate them. Tiger didn't break par in any of his four rounds there last year -- just the sixth time he's ever done that at a regular PGA Tour event. It didn't happen once from 2000 through 2009.
If Woods can find a way to put the ball in the fairway this week, he should be in contention. Last year at the Honda, Tiger led the field in approach shot proximity from the fairway. And on eight of the 10 birdies/eagles Woods made on par 4s and par 5s, he found the fairway off the tee.
If the first two starts of the season are any indication, that will be a tall task.