Tiger Woods finishes 12th at Honda Classic after final-round 70

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Tiger Woods will always be linked to Jack Nicklaus, for better and worse. And while his performance at the Honda Classic will undoubtedly be viewed as a positive step in his comeback, he can point to the Golden Bear as the reason perhaps it was not better.

Woods shot a final-round 70 at PGA National on Sunday to finish 12th in just his third tournament this year following spinal fusion surgery in April.

But it was the so-called "Bear Trap'' that ultimately kept him from being a true contender.

Woods finished eight strokes out of the sudden-death playoff won by Justin Thomas -- and he was 8 over par on the three-hole stretch (12 holes total) on the back nine redesigned by Nicklaus years ago.

"I had a shot at it; I was right there,'' said Woods, who had his best finish since a tie for 10th at the 2015 Wyndham Championship. "Unfortunately I didn't play the last few holes well the last couple days. Might have been a different outcome.''

Woods was hardly downtrodden about it. He has preached patience and tempered expectations since returning for a December exhibition in the Bahamas and playing three PGA Tour events this year, including a tie for 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open and missed cut last week at the Genesis Open.

At the Honda Classic, where a water-lined, windy golf course awaited, Woods stood up to the test nicely, shooting just one round over par. He made 10 bogeys or worse for the week, with seven coming on either the 15th, 16th or 17th holes -- the Bear Trap stretch.

Woods made three front-nine birdies to pull within four shots of the lead, then bogeyed the ninth. When he birdied the 14th, he had gotten back to 3 under par for the round and was thinking about a final charge.

"I made that birdie on 14 and felt like if I could post 6 [-under], I felt like that might get me into a playoff,'' Woods said. "[Nos.] 15, 16, 17 are playing a little tricky but 18 can be had. ... I thought 6 might have an outside chance of a playoff, and I just didn't do it.''

Woods said he hit his tee shot "flush'' on the 15th and "I don't know how it ended up short.'' The double-bogey ended his chances, and then he three-putted the 16th green for another bogey.

That dropped Woods back to even par, but he left with plenty of positives.

His driving was much better, as he hit nine of 14 fairways in the final round. He also hit 14 of 18 greens after hitting 13 on Saturday. For the week, his proximity to the hole of just under 30 feet led the field. So did his driving distance of 319 yards on the two measured holes.

"I'm amazed at how well Tiger's playing,'' Nicklaus said during the CBS broadcast. "I think it's fantastic. He's swung very well. He's playing very well. It's fantastic.''

Woods stalled on 14 major championships -- four behind Nicklaus -- 10 years ago, but has surpassed him in PGA Tour victories, 79 to 73.

The last came in 2013, and four back surgeries have followed, with this being just his 23rd worldwide start since the first back surgery.

"I feel very positive about it,'' Woods said. "I feel like I've really hit the ball well. I missed the golf ball in the correct spots and I had control of my ball. That's something I'm very proud of. Each and every time I've come out to tournaments, I'm getting the feel of the round faster.

"I've been away from tournament golf for so long that I'm starting to feel the rounds. I'm starting to get into it quicker, feel the pace, feel the shots and get a better sense of it. The more I play tournament golf, the better I'll get at it.''

Following his performance in the Honda Classic, Woods is projected to move up to 388th in the world. He was 544th entering the week.

Woods said again that he is "building toward April'' and the Masters but offered no indication of where he will play next.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, seems a logical choice in three weeks. He's not eligible for the World Golf Championship event in Mexico this week, nor the one in Austin, Texas, next month. Since he is unlikely to play the week prior to the Masters in Houston, the only other option would be the Valspar Championship two weeks from now.

Does Woods think one more tournament is enough? That is what he can ponder over the coming days.

"I need to reset again and be ready for the future,'' he said.

"I see great strides,'' caddie Joe LaCava said. "I didn't want to panic after L.A. [Genesis Open] and I don't want to get ahead of myself here. But it's nice to see him going forward.''