NASSAU, Bahamas – A brief island shower left behind a majestic rainbow arching magnificently across Old Fort Bay on the northwest side of this tiny island early Tuesday morning. What resided at the end of the rainbow?
Was it a pot of gold? Or just another puddle?
This is where we are with Tiger Woods and his golf game as he nears his return to competition for the first time in more than 15 months. We just don’t know what we’ll get until we see it, watch it, experience it. Woods will tee it up Thursday in his own Hero World Challenge on Thursday, joking that the Hero World Challenge tournament committee (he resides on it) decided to extend one invitation to a player outside the world’s top 50.
Woods, having slipped to No. 898, missed by only, oh, about 848 spots or so.
As a five-time winner of the event, nobody is questioning Woods’ worthiness. Woods says he is feeling healthy, and ready to compete. He seems excited. Those who have walked with him say the distinct sound of his shots seems to be there in practice, and in meaningless rounds on the golf course. But when the bell rings on Thursday, it’s real again, even if this is a sleepy little limited-field event played in an island paradise as an encore to what has been a long calendar year.
Certainly the fact Woods is here with clubs this time represents significant progress. A year ago, Woods hosted his tournament for the first time at Albany and rode around gingerly in a golf cart, as a spectator. Having gone through a pair of microdiscectomies and a follow-up procedure in October 2015, his future was the great unknown. The 79-time PGA Tour winner and 14-time major winner, generally respected as the most exciting, dynamic talent this game has seen, wasn’t sure he’d even compete again.
“If you couldn’t get out of bed, how would you feel about your future about doing a lot of different things in life?” Woods asked a reporter. “That’s where I was. And so if you weren’t allowed to use your hands to write anymore, you could think it but you couldn’t do it, how would it feel? That’s where I was.
“So it’s hard, isn’t it, when you put it in terms like that. Your job or your ability, what you’ve done, your mind is willing but the body is not. And that’s where I was and that’s why I gave the answer I did. It was honest.”
Woods, who turns 41 Dec. 30, has an assortment of different clubs in the bag this week, some old (Nike irons and his faithful Scotty Cameron by Titleist Newport 2 putter), some new. He said this is the first time he ever has utilized adjustable hosels in his fitting process as he worked into a TaylorMade M2 driver. Regardless of what utensils he uses, he heads into the tournament carrying his familiar warrior’s mindset.
“I’m going to try to do the same thing I always do,” he said. “I’m entered in an event, I’m going to try to win this thing. I know Bubba (Watson, last year’s winner) went low, shot 25 under. That’s going to be a tall order. I haven’t played in a while. Shooting 25 under is going to be a little hard. … But hey, I’m going to give it my best.”
He always does. This is a player so dialed into excellence that he has missed only 15 cuts in his 19-plus seasons as a pro on the PGA Tour. Woods last official start was the 2015 Wyndham Championship, played in August, the last regular-season stop of the 2014-15 season. He contended into Sunday, playing in the day’s final group in front of record crowds, but slipped back in the final round, eventually tying for 10th.
Woods was slated to come back at last month’s Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., but several factors led him to withdraw just three days before the tournament started. For one, he had spent a week at the Ryder Cup in Minneapolis as an assistant captain to Davis Love III. The experience was enriching, but cost him a week of practice. So he thought about going to Safeway with only two “stock” shots in his arsenal – he said he has competed (and won) in lesser form – but in the end decided that he’d already waited long enough, so why not wait two more months and start in the Bahamas, at a far more lower-key event in which he is guaranteed four rounds?
He said Tuesday his decision to wait was a good one. With the help of caddie Joe LaCava, he got his tournament legs back, walking rounds at home at The Medalist. He feels far more ready as he nears the starting blocks at Albany. He has missed the guys, missed the playful banter. At the Ryder Cup, team members greeted him one day with “Make Tiger Woods Great Again” shirts. Mostly, though, he has missed the competition, the fiery, look-an-opponent-in-the-eye, I’m-going-to-do-everything-I-can-to-beat-you mentality.
“For me personally, I love to compete and I love mixing it up with the guys,” he said. “That’s just me personally. Whether it’s at this level, which is the ultimate, playing against the best players in the world, or it’s at home for a few bucks, competition is competition.”
He is saying all the right things, but also knows that Thursday, when the adrenaline starts pumping again near his noon tee time, will be a different experience. His fellow competitors have welcomed him back, and seem to genuinely be rooting for him, knowing that if Woods plays well again, interest will rise, which can help the game rise, too.
“My expectations,” Bubba Watson said, “are that it’s Tiger Woods. We expect him to win again.”
Woods played nine holes on Monday with former New York Yankees captain and standout shortstop Derek Jeter. Jeter knew when his time was up in baseball, much like several other athletes who came into other pro sports about the time Woods did. Woods, Jeter, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan all began their pro careers roughly 20 years ago. Those other three have retired. Woods plays on. His body willing, he says he’d like to compete for another decade.
With a golfer, it’s different. It can be less complicated. With Woods, no longer is he near the power player he once was, rendering par-72 layouts into par 68s with his prodigious length.
“In golf,” Woods said, referencing his retired pals, “I can play a different way and get away with it. Jim Furyk, not the longest hitter, shot 58 this year. You can do it different ways. … It’s possible. So I’m just going to have to find different ways of doing it.”
Best news? His body feels good. What lies ahead? It’s much like that magnificent rainbow that arched over the island early Tuesday morning. We all can revel in the beauty, and we’ll be intrigued to see whether it again leads to gold.