NASSAU, Bahamas – He came, he saw, he conquered … okay, so maybe he didn’t completely conquer, as Rickie Fowler clipped him by 10 shots. But Tiger Woods’ comeback at the Hero World Challenge off a 10-month layoff cannot be deemed anything but highly successful.
Here are five takeaways:
5. His speed is there
The part of his game that impressed, if not totally surprised, those who hadn’t seen Tiger in South Florida was that the speed in his swing was back. He was hitting the ball long, and it was power that seemed effortless. He was reaching ball speeds of 180 mph-plus, and if his length is there, and he can hit fairways, watch out.
“He’s driving it 315-ish off the tee,” said his caddie, Joe LaCava, “which makes life easier.”
Notah Begay, Woods’ old Stanford teammate and longtime friend, a member of the inner circle, tried to remain cautiously optimistic as Woods readied for his return last week.
“This is a first sort of assessment, a standardized test, if you will, asking, Where does the game stand?” Begay said. “So there’s body, there’s mind, there’s technique. All those things are going to be evaluated over the next few days, and Tiger will be his hardest critic. But also, I think there’s a huge opportunity here. There’s so much more upside here than downside, a huge opportunity to come out of this going, ‘Wow, I’m really looking forward to 2018.’”
He passed his test.
4. The Welcome Mat is out
To a man, there seemed to be genuine excitement among the other 17 players in the small field at Hero that Woods had returned. “Tiger Woods is BACK!” playfully exclaimed Matt Kuchar to agent Mark Steinberg before signing his card after Saturday’s round.
Woods joked that his children know him as the YouTube Golfer, and for many young players in the field, that’s been their only access to Tiger the Worldbeater, who was knocking off majors at an amazing club (seven in 11 starts, at one point).
Many of the younger guys have assisted Tiger in getting him ready for Hero, which is cool. Woods played money games with Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Daniel Berger. “When I was trying to make my comeback,” Woods said on the 18th green Sunday as Fowler lifted his trophy, “one of the guys who was blowing up my phone was Rick. ‘Let’s go play.’ ”
3. Foes don’t want a ceremonial Tiger
The PGA Tour young guns welcoming Woods back don’t want a guy who isn’t totally healthy and can no longer compete for titles. No, T-28 Tiger need not apply. Fowler was asked if this could be one of those deals where, if Woods regains anything close to old form, players regret that for which they wished.
“I feel like I can speak for a lot of the young guys and guys on Tour,” Fowler said. “We want to go up and play guys that are playing their best, and that’s how we want to win tournaments. You want to feel like you earned it and you deserve the win.
“You don’t want wins given to you, there’s not as much satisfaction out of it.”
2. Next stop, Torrey Pines?
Woods said he and his team will sit down, go through his play at the Hero, and start to build a plan for competing in 2018. We’ll almost surely see him start the season at Torrey Pines at the Farmers Insurance Open Jan. 25-28, the fourth PGA Tour event of the new year.
From there, his pre-Masters run could shape up like this: Genesis Open (Riviera); Honda Classic (PGA National); Arnold Palmer Invitational (Bay Hill). Then on to Augusta. Woods will not be eligible for WGC events in Mexico and Austin. (Tiger Woods, on the outside looking in?) Honda is in his back yard, but if he opted not to play it, Valspar and its tough course (Innisbrook Copperhead) might turn out a sleepy good fit for his game. The last time he branched out and broke off his usual annual rota of events, Woods showed up at Wyndham (2015) and had a chance to win.
“I think that we’re going to sit down here, we’re going to figure out what’s the best way for me to build my schedule for the major championships,” Woods said Sunday. “Play, how much, what my training cycles are going to be, and play enough but don’t play too much. I don’t know what golf courses I’ll be playing and what’s the best way to go about it. We’ll sit down with the whole team and we’ll figure it out.”
1. Tiger Woods is back!
OK, so venture out onto the front lawn or down the office hallway and high-five somebody! We’re not saying he’s “back back” to those glory days of the early 2000s but he showed off some shots that indicated he’s pretty pain-free and able to swing the club with some power and freedom. When Justin Thomas laid into a drive at the par-5 15th on Sunday, Woods pounded one out there right next to him. Woods smashed a drive 80 yards past Patrick Reed in a Monday practice round, and though he had some chipping miscues (as many did), he also had moments where his short touch was world class.
A year ago, everyone left the Hero with great optimism that Woods had shown enough to resume some golf normalcy in 2017. It never happened. Two rounds at Torrey, a round in Dubai, and he was done. But his last surgery (lower back fusion) is different, and one he says should hold. “Undoing” it would be like breaking a leg. Thankfully, he no longer needs help just to get out of bed in the morning, or has to miss dinners because he can’t sit. And if he really is healthy, as he tells he is, then he can practice again to improve weak parts of the game. That was a huge missing element.
On Friday, when he shot 31 on the front nine (as he did Sunday), Woods ripped a 3-wood from 265 yards into the green at the 603-yard ninth, setting up and eagle from 20 feet. There is water right of the green, and the wind was at him, so it called for a near-perfect strike. NBC’s Gary Koch, a former Tour winner, was walking along and took notice.
“There just aren’t many golfers out here that can hit that shot,” he said.
No there aren’t. And one guy who did it more than anyone is back in the lineup. Tiger Woods is back. That should make the egg nog taste sweeter this year.