NORTON, Mass. — Tiger Woods has been careful to manage his schedule to avoid playing too much as he tends to a lower back that has gone through four surgeries.
Now the idea is to play as many golf tournaments as he can.
"The plan is to play four out of five," Woods said Wednesday after practicing on the back nine at TPC Boston. "That's the plan."
It's an ambitious approach for a 44-year-old who tries to avoid playing consecutive weeks, much less the three in a row that might be required for him to reach the Tour Championship for the first time since he won the season-ending event at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club in 2018. That was also the last time Woods played three weeks in a row.
The road begins Thursday with 123 players at The Northern Trust, the first of three playoff events that culminate in Atlanta with the Tour Championship and the $15 million prize to the FedEx Cup champion. The field includes all three Baylor School graduates on the PGA Tour, with Harris English 27th in the points standings, Keith Mitchell 105th and Luke List 116th.
Justin Thomas is No. 1 — the eighth player in eight years to have the top seed starting the postseason — and practiced Wednesday with Woods, Ryan Palmer and Harold Varner III.
Woods wasn't sure where he stood in the standings. He thought it was No. 28, his position when professional golf shut down in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having played only twice since the PGA Tour returned in June, he has fallen to No. 49.
Only the top 70 after this weekend advance to next week's BMW Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago, and from there the top 30 will go to East Lake.
That Woods is as high as even No. 49 is remarkable considering he has played only five times this season. That includes the ZoZo Championship in Japan last October, when Woods won for his record-tying 82nd PGA Tour career victory.
There also was a tie for ninth place in the Farmers Insurance Open, dead last among those who made in the Genesis Invitational and then no golf for three months. Because the PGA Tour lost 13 weeks from its schedule due to the pandemic, FedEx Cup points for the playoff events are only triple in value instead of being worth four times as much, which will reduce some of the volatility.
A victory or runner-up finish for Woods at TPC Boston, where he won in 2006, would lock up a spot in Atlanta and might afford him the chance to take off next week. Considering he hasn't seriously contended since last fall in Japan, odds are he'll have to play three in a row to reach the Tour Championship.
"That's the way it's going to work out," he said.
Then he would have one week to exhale before the U.S. Open, one of the most grueling weeks in golf, which was rescheduled from its typical mid-June date because of the pandemic.
"We're all getting used to the schedule," Woods said. "This is weird for every one of us."
That includes Thomas, who joined Woods on Monday for a practice round at Winged Foot Golf Club's West Course, the U.S. Open will be played Sept. 17-20. He spoke of crossing the virtual finish line at East Lake and going on a vacation to decompress. That's in a normal year.
Now? There's no stopping.
"That Masters in November is sort of the end of the season," said Rory McIlroy, whose four major championships do not include a green jacket. "But look, it's a different year. I think we're all just glad that the tournaments are being played and that we're getting them in, that there's going to be a champion. Someone's got to win them. Doesn't matter if it's in April or November. The fact that we have an opportunity is the most important thing."
McIlroy and Woods are the only players to have won the FedEx Cup twice — Woods in 2007 and 2009 as the No. 1 seed, McIlroy in 2016 and last year when he rallied to beat Brooks Koepka on the final day at East Lake. Thomas has a healthy lead over Collin Morikawa — who won the PGA Championship this month — and Webb Simpson in the points standings.
For those near the bottom of the standings, a group that includes 2019 British Open champion Shane Lowry (122) and three-time major winner Jordan Spieth (100), it's imperative to play well this week or go home. For those in the middle — like Woods — the first objective is to get to Atlanta, and that means more golf than Woods is used to playing these days.
The top players are concerned about their position for East Lake, whether that's Thomas, McIlroy (No. 8) or Dustin Johnson (No. 15), who has not won a FedEx Cup.
"I'm not trying to peak this week. I'm trying to kind of start the upward climb to hopefully be peaking come Monday in Atlanta," Thomas said, alluding to the Labor Day finish at the Tour Championship.
Koepka ended a forgettable 2019-20 season Wednesday when he withdrew with what he described as nagging hip and knee injuries. Players who withdraw during the FedEx Cup playoffs are not replaced. Vaughn Taylor withdrew earlier, leaving 123 players in the field.
At No. 97 in the standings, Koepka would have needed a good finish at TPC Boston, which tends to favor power players, to advance to the BMW Championship.
"My body's nowhere near 100%," Koepka said last week when he missed the cut at the Wyndham Championship, his sixth straight tournament in a late bid to revive his season.
Koepka began the year at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking but has dropped to No. 7, the product of injury and not having won in more than a year. He had a stem cell procedure during his short offseason last September. In his second start back, he injured his left knee in South Korea when he slipped on a wet slab of concrete and missed three months.
Then he lost three months of competition — just like everyone else — because of the pandemic. When he did play, it was not up to his standards.
His best chance came early this month at the FedEx St. Jude Invitational, the World Golf Championship in Memphis, when he hit into the water on the last hole at TPC Southwind to lose any chance of catching Thomas. The following week at the PGA Championship, he started the final round at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco two shots behind in a bid to become the first player in 64 years to win the same major three straight times.
Even there, he required treatment on his hip during the second round when it locked up on him; on the final day, he faded to a 74 and tied for 29th. Now he will have a month off before going for a third U.S. Open title.
"Brooks is one of the biggest names in the game. We've all seen his physical struggles since last year," McIlroy said. "It's maybe never a good time, but it's a better time than any other time to get it right. You know, take a few weeks off, try to get himself ready for the U.S. Open, and then the Masters coming up as well.
"I think it's smart on his part to do that, and hopefully comes back healthy and comes back ready to play."