Technically speaking, the Bear Trap begins at the par-3 15th hole, the first of the three consecutive menacing holes at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion course at PGA National Resort and Spa. As Padraig Harrington, a two-time champion here, described it earlier in the week, the sweaty palms start long before that.
“I start thinking about it the night before,” Harrington said.
On Sunday, Tiger Woods, who entered the final round of this year’s Honda Classic 7 strokes off the lead, reached No. 15 at 3-under for the day, 4 strokes out of the lead. Water guards both the front and right sides of the green, and a large bunker to the left is a magnet for those who bail out. Needing to make birdie, he chose a 6-iron and attacked the front-right pin location. A light wind blew in Woods’s face, eliminating any concern that he might overshoot the 169-yard hole.
“I hit that flush,” he said.
Woods’s tee shot hung high in the air, then rippled the water hazard. A collective groan rose from the crowd. A double bogey on the hole ultimately removed Woods from the trophy chase, but he still came away with his best finish in three starts since he missed more than 10 months following vertebrae fusion surgery, the fourth back operation of his career.
“I thought I had plenty of stick,” Woods said of his water-bound shot. “I don’t know how it ended up short.”
Woods followed with a three-putt bogey at No. 16 en route to shooting an even-par 70 for a 72-hole total of 280. Across all four rounds, he played the three Bear Trap holes in 8-over, and was 8-under on the PGA National’s remaining 15 holes. He finished in 12th place, 8 strokes behind the winner, Justin Thomas, who defeated Luke List on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
The tournament was another encouraging step for Woods. With physical strength having been such a crucial part of his game during his years of dominance, there was concern that his recurring back trouble would stall his career at 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour wins. But Woods, 42, gave a resounding answer to anyone who thought he would be a sideshow in his latest comeback. His third-round score of 69 marked his first round in the 60s since the 2015 Wyndham Championship, a span of 917 days. Woods flashed signs this week that he was regaining command of his game. He had 14 putts for birdie in the third round, and all but one of them were from inside 25 feet.
Whether Woods is truly healthy again, as he claims, there is no denying that he is swinging with renewed ferocity. The warm weather presented perfect conditions for Woods’s back. He ripped a 361-yard drive on No. 10 on Friday, ranked third in driving distance for the week averaging 319 yards and unleashed a blistering 128-mile-per-hour swing. Most impressive, he led the field in proximity to the hole on approach shots, averaging 29 feet 3 inches.
Woods’s drives were crooked in his season debut at Torrey Pines, but he survived the cut there on guile and guts and finished tied for 23rd. A week ago at Riviera Country Club, erratic ball-striking led to a career-low 16 greens over two rounds, and a missed cut.
Playing in a frisky, fickle wind this week, Woods shaped shots both ways and controlled the trajectory of his ball, scraping the clouds and hitting three-quarter knock-down shots when the situation called for it. His chipping woes, which stymied previous comeback attempts, no longer seem to be a concern.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Woods’s caddie, Joe LaCava, said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
At the top of the list is a miss to the left when Woods’s aims left to hit a left-to-right shot.
“He’s got to find a go-to safety shot,” said Nick Faldo, the CBS Sports analyst. “Whether he’s good enough to hit a 2-yard fade or 20-yard fade, it has got to fade. You can’t aim left and hit it left. That’s a for anyone. If he can perfect that, he can play anywhere.”
Count Brandt Snedeker, who played alongside Woods during the third round at Torrey Pines and during the first two rounds of the Honda Classic, among those impressed by the progress Woods already has made.