Column: West Coast in rearview mirror, Masters on horizon

Dustin Johnson tees off on the second hole during the final round of the Genesis Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) It took until the start of the Florida swing – seven tournaments – for a PGA Tour event in 2018 to not feature at least one of the top three players in the world. Not that anyone cares at the Honda Classic.

Tiger Woods is playing.

Woods has picked up a new nickname in golfing circles during his return to golf: The Needle.

He doesn’t just move it. He is it.

Television can’t (and shouldn’t) keep the camera off him. He was on the opposite end of the course at Torrey Pines and visible everywhere because of a gallery that stretched from tee-to-green on every hole. Crowds either thinned or dispersed – safe money is on the former – after he missed the cut at Riviera.

That doesn’t figure to change anytime soon, certainly not before the Masters, though Woods likely will play only twice before then. Until he improves on a world ranking at No. 544, he is not eligible for the two World Golf Championships over the next month.

This will be a different kind of road to the Masters for him.

In the rearview is a West Coast Swing that showed glimpses of who is surging and who needs work, but very little clarity except for the sky. From Hawaii to California, weather was never an issue. Neither were ballistic missiles.

DUSTIN JOHNSON: Johnson made it clear he is not staying in the same house for the Masters, where last year he slipped down the wooden stairs while wearing socks and not only wrenched his back, he wrecked his year. Johnson never let on how much momentum he lost from that fall.

He started the new year with an eight-shot victory and suggested he was as close to regaining the form of last spring, which was the best he ever played. But after a lackluster week in Abu Dhabi (tie for ninth), he wasn’t sharp at Pebble Beach and failed to win after sharing the 54-hole lead with Ted Potter Jr. In his title defense at Riviera, he was slowed by a triple bogey (first round) and double bogey (final round) on the fifth hole.

Even so, he became the fifth player since 1986 to stay at No. 1 for an entire year. He has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead in three of his last five official events, and was within five shots at the other two.

With six weeks to go before the Masters, he’s still the player to beat.

SURGING: Jason Day and Bubba Watson won tournaments and got back into the conversation.

Day made the wrong kind of history when he finished last year out of the top 10 after starting it at No. 1. His mother was battling lung cancer, which disrupted the early part of the year. Mainly, though, Day saw No. 1 as a burden and wound up losing the discipline that makes him look unbeatable at times. Day said he was ready to get back to the top, and he knew the only way to get there would be to win. And then he won a playoff at Torrey Pines.

Watson switched to the Volvik golf ball of the yellow, green and pink variety. He says that was never an issue, pinning last year’s problems on a health issue that caused him to lose some 20 pounds, and ultimately lose power and then confidence. He was No. 117 in the world before winning at Riviera, a reminder of how good he can be.

Much like Day, the fact Watson wants to be an elite player again is half the battle.

CLIMBING: Jordan Spieth has been trying to reset his putting stroke for close to a year. He’s good enough that he still won the British Open because he made putts when he needed, which is part of his greatness.

What set him back was mononucleosis late last year, which cost him time in the gym and on the range. He is getting closer to where he wants to be with the putter, but he has yet to finish closer than five shots of the winner in his four starts this year. Spieth likely has three starts in March ahead of Augusta. He has won each of the last three years before getting to the Masters.

SLOW PLAY: C.T. Pan twice hit into a canyon and J.B. Holmes hit into the fairway. Those two moments at Torrey Pines – only one of them on TV – led to more outrage pace of play on the PGA Tour.

Pan went into the hazard on the par-3 third and twice had to walk back to the tee, causing there to be four groups on the hole early in the final round.

Holmes was on the par-5 18th, and if his drive had gone a few feet to the right into the rough, he would have laid up. Instead, he deliberated for just over four minutes on how to make eagle, at one point resting his arm on the clubs while staring at the green and looking like a wax figure. Worse yet, Alex Noren needed a birdie to win and after waiting on Holmes, switched clubs and went over the green.

Worse than slow play is that it takes an incident like this to talk about it. And odds are it probably will be forgotten by the Masters.