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Woods in a better place heading into this PGA Championship

Tiger Woods hits from a bunker toward the 18th green during the final round of the Memorial golf tournament, Sunday, July 19, 2020, in Dublin, Ohio. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Tiger Woods hits from a bunker toward the 18th green during the final round of the Memorial golf tournament, Sunday, July 19, 2020, in Dublin, Ohio. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

SAN FRANCISCO – The course is one Tiger Woods knows well and where he has winning memories. The PGA Championship is a major he has won four times, more than anyone except Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen.

Woods learned last year that brings no guarantee of playing well.

Coming off the deep emotions of a Masters victory that capped his remarkable comeback, Woods lasted only two days at Bethpage Black and missed the cut.

He said Tuesday he's in a much better place at the TPC Harding Park.

Never mind that Woods has played only one tournament — a tie for 40th at the Memorial — in the last six months because of the COVID-19 pandemic and his own limited schedule. The biggest difference was showing up on Sunday in the sunshine to play 18 holes at Harding Park, followed by nine holes Monday as fog crept through the cypress trees and the temperature plunged into the 50s.

A year ago, he played 18 holes a week before the PGA Championship and only nine holes in the three days leading to the opening round. This year, his approach appears more serious.

“After I won the Masters, it was a bit of a whirlwind," Woods said. “We got a chance to go to the White House and meet with our president. I celebrated winning the Masters for quite some time. Came to Bethpage and played awful, and felt like Brooks (Koepka) beat me by like 30 shots in two days."

It wasn't that bad. Koepka pipped him by only 17 and went on to win a second straight Wanamaker Trophy.

“My game is better than it was going into that PGA,” Woods said, “and hopefully, I can put it together this week.”

They were encouraging words, not quite to the level he shared about a few past majors. Woods said that only three times in the 15 majors he won did he realize “all I had to do was keep my heartbeat going and I was going to win.”

One was his 12-shot victory in the 1997 Masters. The others were his 15-shot win at Pebble Beach in 2000 and his eight-shot win at St. Andrews in 2000.

“My game was clicking on all cylinders for maybe the week prior. The week of it, got a little bit better and just had to maintain it the rest of the week,” he said. “Those were the rare exceptions.”

He can't predict how his surgically repaired back will feel tomorrow, much less for an entire week. And he hasn't competed enough lately to get a true sense of how he will perform.

Woods just knows it will be quiet. This is the first major without spectators. The atmosphere is nothing new for players who have been back at work for the last two months on the fan-free PGA Tour. The stakes are higher now with a major, no matter how silent it might be.

“The atmosphere will not be the same, and I can say from experience," Jon Rahm said. "You’re coming down the stretch and you’re hitting some shots and you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what the people in front of you are doing. And you’re hitting shots into the green and you don’t know how close they can be. It’s very odd down the stretch.”

It wasn't anything like that when Woods won at Harding Park in 2005, beating John Daly in a World Golf Championship that felt like a rock concert with two of the biggest draws in golf — one predictable, the other not so much — in a playoff. It was so loud that Woods recalled being half-deaf from the screaming.

And now there are only silent expectations, for him and so many others.

For the second straight year, Koepka comes to Northern California with a chance to win the same major three years in a row, a feat achieved by only six players in the 160-year history of the majors. He was runner-up at Pebble Beach last summer in the U.S. Open. Now he's the two-time defending champion for the PGA, and he found some form last week with a runner-up finish in a World Golf Championship.

“My game feels like it's in really, really good shape right now,” he said. “Every day is a lot more comfortable. I'm excited. This is a big-boy golf course.”

Harding Park at 7,251 yards feels long at sea level, with heavy air and marine layer so thick that the sun is a rumor. The PGA Championship has never been known for its sweaters. Woods said he was on the range Monday listening to players who were in Memphis, Tennessee, last week talking about the difference in how far the ball was going.

The cool air can be an issue for Woods, who has had four back surgeries and has struggled at times in the chill.

His back acted up in the cold of Riviera in Los Angeles in February, leading him to take off a few weeks, and then the pandemic shut down golf. Then again, his back didn't feel right in the July heat of Ohio for a few days. That's one area of his game Woods can't control.

“I know I won’t have the same range of motion as I would back home in Florida where it’s 95 every day. That’s just the way it is,” Woods said. “I think the weather forecast is supposed to be like this all week — marine layer, cool, windy, and we’re all going to have to deal with it.”