Fifth Masters not assured for Woods

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The hearty handshake was accompanied by some R-rated ribbing, tournament host Arnold Palmer congratulating Tiger Woods -- again -- beside the 18th green at his Bay Hill Club by first questioning his manhood about the way he played the last hole.

Of course, Woods was doing what he had to do -- and he does it better than anybody else when protecting a lead -- by playing it safe, making a bogey, and getting out with another victory, his third of the year on the PGA Tour, one that puts him back atop the world rankings and the clear favorite heading to Augusta National in 17 days.

Ah, the Masters.

Woods would be the story going to the year's first major whether he won or not Monday, but given the way he is playing at the moment, including his improved putting and short game, there undoubtedly will be plenty of hype when he arrives for the year's first major championship.

Is this the year he moves ahead of Palmer in green jackets, getting his first Masters win since 2005 and his first major title since 2008?

That question will be asked nothing short of a million times before he drives down Magnolia Lane.

When he won here a year ago, Woods also had plenty of attention going into the Masters, then finished 40th, his worst showing there as a pro after nothing but top-six finishes since his previous victory.

So what's different?

"I think he's hitting the ball better, he'd tell you that," said Joe LaCava, Woods' caddie. "I think his short game is certainly better. Both of those things are huge going in. He won tournaments going in [to the majors] last year, but now that his short game has tightened up, I think there will be more positives for him. You've got to have every part of your game, but short game is huge.

"I think there's more confidence. The guy has won six times now [in 53 weeks], so you're going to get more confidence. I think it shows in the shots he's hitting. Six wins will do that."

There are, of course, no guarantees. Last year proved that. And three previous times, Woods had three PGA Tour victories going to the Masters, and did not prevail, the latest in 2008 -- when he won four of his six starts in an injury-shortened year.

In 2012, Woods' difficulty with major championships was pronounced. Beside the Masters finish, he was the 36-hole leader at both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and didn't finish in the top 10; and at the Open Championship, he couldn't make a weekend move, although he did tie for third.

There was a sense that he was trying too hard, that he wanted it too much -- if that is even possible.

Asked about that notion Monday, Woods said: "I felt like maybe my game wasn't quite consistent enough to be there at that point. I've gotten so much better since those events, and I've cleaned up a lot of different things in my game, and I'm very pleased with where it's come along.

"I've turned some of the weaknesses that I had last year into strengths. My short game came around, I thought my swing was getting better, my short irons got better, lo and behold, I won a few tournaments this year."

No doubt, Woods is far better with his short irons. He's making more putts, having led the field in strokes-gained putting. He was tied for ninth in distance to the pin.

"He can hit it better, there's no doubt, but the game is about scoring," said Woods' swing coach, Sean Foley. "I see some of that when he's not hitting it perfect, when he's still able to score and almost shoot the low score of the day.

"If he made a lot of putts from 7 to 18 feet, well that means you're putting from 7 to 18 feet. I'm so pleased for him. To start with him in 2010 and watch him. .. I admire the guy. He's tough, really tough."

Rickie Fowler, who had a chance to make the tournament interesting until he hit the ball in the water at the 16th, plays the occasional round at home with Woods at the Medalist Golf Club near Jupiter, Fla. Grouped together several times last year, Fowler remarked that Woods wasn't bringing his game from the club to the tour.

It appears that was just a matter of time.

"He looks a lot more comfortable out there," Fowler said. "He doesn't really miss many shots. So he's swinging well, looks comfortable out there ... When he's on top of his game, he's got a little something."

This is nothing new for Woods. He's been through this process through three previous swing changes. He knew there would be growing pains, and sure enough, each time, he came out of his lulls through practice and proficiency, taking his lumps along the way.

Now he's handing them out again, climbing back to the top of the game.

No doubt, when he arrives for the Champions Dinner at Augusta National two nights prior to the opening tee shot at the Masters, Palmer, 83, will be there to greet him with a few more good-natured jabs.

Perhaps this time, Woods will get the ultimate last laugh: a fifth green jacket to hang in the closet.