By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – Tiger Woods may only be three starts into his PGA Tour return but some experts feel the former world number one has shown he still has what it takes to make a meteoric rise up the rankings.
Woods, who had spinal-fusion surgery 10 months ago, has been erratic off the tee but has displayed solid scrambling skills to record two top-25 finishes and reach 389th in the world.
“I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see Tiger make a run into the top 10 (in the world),” Golf Channel analyst and former world number one David Duval told a conference call on Thursday.
“How high he can get, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he made a run.”
Woods, 42, showed more than a few glimpses of his vintage best at last week’s Honda Classic where, despite playing on one of the most difficult courses on the PGA Tour, he entered the weekend only four shots off the lead.
The 14-times major champion, whose third-round 69 was his lowest on the PGA Tour since 2015, finished eight shots off the pace in 12th for perhaps his boldest statement yet of the year.
“He’s close to winning a golf tournament,” said former PGA Tour winner and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee.
“It’s probably a tie between his club head speed and his ability to get the ball up and down again that surprised me the most. I’m not sure which one surprised me the most, but he’s a threat again. And it’s great to have him back.”
Last week’s performance by Woods was so encouraging that his odds to win the April 5-8 Masters dropped to 16-1, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook.
Woods is a four-times Masters champion but has not competed in the first major of the year since 2015 due to a back injury that some felt would spell the end of his illustrious career.
But those predictions may have been premature as Woods has shown no ill effects in his latest comeback from the back problems that plagued him for years.
“Certainly there’s hurdles to overcome, but the sharpness of his golf swing and his game look very, very good,” said Duval. “You can see that as much as anything I think it was some competitive rust he was fighting.
“I don’t think he’s all the way there and all the way back. He’s certainly getting awful close awful quickly.”
Woods has said he needs more “tournament reps” to be ready for the Masters but eligibility issues will limit the number of events he can play between now and April.
Chamblee said impressive outings would offer a timely pre-Masters boost for the former champion but added that he saw everything he needed to see from Woods at the Honda Classic to know he could be a contender at Augusta National.
“One or two tournaments I think would be just enough for him. And I think he needs to contend again and get into the hunt,” said Chamblee. “But it will surprise nobody if he’s very close to the lead all through that tournament, the Masters.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)