Room for improvement for Tiger Woods

AKRON, Ohio -- There is little time to prepare for the year's final major championship, a crash course in swing mechanics, putting and chipping with Atlanta Athletic Club commencing in the coming days.

Tiger Woods will undoubtedly head into the PGA Championship talking about winning, holding to his long-held mantra that there is no point in showing up otherwise.

He got a bit testy when that subject was broached this week at Firestone Country Club, where he finished a rather ordinary tied for 37th at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, an event he has won seven times.

It apparently is just not in Woods' DNA to allow for any deviation from striving for the best, even though the result here is probably what should have been expected, without any angst.

After three months of not competitive golf, of virtually no golf at all, Woods returned to a tournament with one of the game's best fields and did … well, so-so.

Based on his prodigious winning ways of the past, you would call the result disappointing. His first-round 68, judged to be a pleasant surprise at the time, was six strokes back of the lead and he never got closer the rest of the week.

Then you put into perspective the events of the past several months, and you take a broader view. Woods had not finished a tournament since a tie for fourth at the Masters. He suffered knee and Achilles injuries during that tournament that for a time had him using crutches and a walking boot. He didn't start hitting balls until a few weeks ago.

"Absolutely encouraged," Woods said Sunday after a final-round 70 that included three consecutive birdies near the end of his round. "I hadn't played. I mean, this is my first tournament since, what, April? So it's been awhile."

Which is exactly why Woods should have figured on nothing more, why he should shake off the shackles of expectations, get his game back without the burden of winning -- or even discussing it.

There are no Triple-A rehab assignments in golf, no limiting minutes off the bench, no pitch counts, no situational substitutions.

At some point, any player who has been injured has to step back inside the ropes, where a slew of world-class players take no pity. They've been playing and practicing. Woods hasn't.

"No one expects him to come out and play well," said Rory McIlroy before the tournament began. "I'm sure he expects himself to come out and play and compete. But given the length of the layoff and considering he's been able to hit full shots for the last two weeks or whatever, it would be an unbelievable effort if he were to come back and compete.

"But I just think get 72 holes and maybe finish top 20 would be a really good effort."

Woods finished the tournament with no injury complications, but couldn't deliver on the top 20.

And so it makes sense that this latest comeback might take a little time.

"It's nice for me to get out there in this competitive atmosphere no matter how I was playing just to figure out how to score because I haven't been forced to score," Woods said. "At home, playing money games with my buddies is just not quite the same. Being out here and being forced to have to post a score, hit shots, that's a different deal."

It is, which is why Woods' sometimes stubborn stance that there is no point in showing up if you are not there to win doesn't line up with what he is trying to do right now.

Woods had nine good holes on Sunday, when he played the first five in 2 under and then the last four in 3 under. The middle nine were not so good: three bogeys and a double, including several wayward drives.

And then there is putting. The focus has understandably been on his injured leg and the refinement of his golf swing, but if Woods is going to play the kind of golf he is accustomed to, then the putting issue that has existed for much of the past two years will have to change.

He needed 33 putts Sunday and, well before the injury problems that surfaced again earlier this year, Woods was not putting with the consistency and proficiency that helped him win 71 PGA Tour titles, including 14 major championships.

One clue to his struggles is his tinkering with putters. After going more than 11 years without making a putter change, Woods has had them on a carousel since last summer's British Open.

Earlier this week, it was back to the Scotty Cameron model that won him 13 of his 14 majors. Sunday, it was back to a Nike
model that he's on and off with over the past year.

"It was [the putter] today," Woods said. "I don't know about Thursday, but it was today."

His struggles (he tied for 45th in total putts) on the greens often get overshadowed by all the talk about his swing and where he hits the ball. Perhaps it has to do with not being able to make up for the other deficiencies in his game.

Woods hit just one fairway on the back nine Sunday and ranked 76th in driving accuracy for the tournament -- which would be dead last. He hit only 22 of 56 fairways for the week.

He is never going to lead the world in that category, but he obviously needs to get better at it. You can't consistently score from the rough, certainly not at a major championship where the conditions are expected to be more taxing.

Atlanta Athletic Club doesn't figure to get any easier.

"It's going to be a very trying test," said Woods, who played a practice round at ACC last Monday. "I think if they play it all the way back from the markers, it's seven par-4s over 450. So it's going to be a pretty long test … It's much longer than what we played in '01."

If Woods sprays it around Atlanta as he did in Akron, he could very well be packing his bags on Friday night.

And since he disclosed Sunday that he would not be heading to Greensboro for the Wyndham Championship the following week for the final event prior to the FedEx Cup playoffs -- due to family obligations -- there exists the possibility that Woods' PGA Tour season could be done next week.

At least Woods reported no pain in his left leg. "It feels great, it's a different kind of feeling," he said.

What follows next needs to be the feeling of getting into contention, something that is a lot to ask considering all that goes into it.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.