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How Tiger Woods has played himself into a corner

Tiger Woods is playing a lot of golf lately. Is it too much? Patrick Smith/Getty Images

NORTON, Mass. -- Tiger Woods needs to practice. Doesn't every golfer? It is the only way to improve, and it is especially vital to Woods, who spent so much time in recent years fighting back pain that there was no time to fight his swing, an inevitability in the game.

A new putter went in the bag this week, and so it stands to reason he needs to work with the new club. Last week, it was a different shaft in his driver, along with an adjustment in the loft. Those at the highest level of the game don't just make such changes, throw the club in the bag, and tee it up in a tournament.

And this presents the greatest of dilemmas for Woods as he competes in his 16th tournament this year, a number that is close to rivaling anything he has put up in the past 15 years.

How do you balance the need to prepare with the need to rest and recuperate?

"What I'm trying to figure out is how much to practice," Woods said after an opening-round 1-over-par 72 at the Dell Technologies Championship on Friday. "I want to work on certain things, but I shouldn't do it. And when I do work on things I've got to pick which part of the game to work on.

"I can't do it all like I used to do. I have to pick certain parts. And certain days to work on different things. And really pace myself through. This is a lot of golf here that I've played of late."

A good problem to have has become ... well, a problem. Is Woods playing too much for his own good at this point? How might it affect his performance in the Ryder Cup, which comes a week after the Tour Championship -- a tournament he is striving to make?

The last time Woods had two weeks off between tournaments was in early July, between a tie for fourth at the Quicken Loans National and his tie for sixth at The Open.

That performance, unexpectedly, got him into the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a tournament he showed up for unprepared because of a planned vacation after The Open. The following week he made his rousing final-round push at the PGA Championship and finished second, vaulting up the FedEx Cup points list to 20th.

It meant Woods could skip a playoff event and still have a reasonable chance to make the Tour Championship. Instead, he played last week at the Northern Trust, had a poor week and finished tied for 40th, then wondered if he'd have been better off taking the week off.

"Some of the guys who skipped last week ... it might have been a smart move," said Woods, who despite playing fell from 20th to the 25th position. Rory McIlroy, who took the week off to work on his game, dropped from 21st to 27th.

This is Woods' fifth tournament in seven weeks. He has qualified for next week's BMW Championship, and even with a relatively poor round to open the Dell, he's in reasonably good position to qualify for the 30-player Tour Championship.

But if he is picked to play in the Ryder Cup -- held Sept. 28-30 in Paris -- that is eight tournaments in 11 weeks.

Woods last played 18 worldwide tournaments in a year in 2013, which is also the last time he played three straight. He's on pace to get to that number this year. If he does, it will be just the third time since 2005 he has played that often.

Inevitably, this type of discussion leads to the "it's only golf" refrain or the "I wish I could play golf all the time." That, of course, misses all that goes into playing at a competitive level.

The four tournament rounds.

The pro-am.

The practice before and after.

The travel.

Then go do it again.

Pretty much every player in the Dell field is dealing with some sort of aches and pains, the top players all putting in heavy schedules in the past two months. But only one of them is 42 years old and coming off a fourth back surgery.

"I keep saying this," McIlroy said. "Everyone needs to give him time because you're not going to be the same person or player after four back surgeries and after everything he's dealt with. I think what he's done is phenomenal."

And yet, to keep up the pace, Woods needs to continually tinker, or in some cases, put in the hard work by digging it out of the dirt.

Woods chuckled when recounting the old days, when he was at the top of his game and could seemingly practice forever. If a certain part of his game was off, he'd go work on it after a round. Driving, chipping, iron shots.

"Then I would go work out when I got home," he said. "And maybe go for a light jog. And that's where it has really, really changed. I can't do those things anymore, not like that. Not that volume. And I just have to pace myself."

Which, right now, is proving to be difficult.