What’s left in Tiger Woods’ tank?

The sample size was diminutive, a single slide under a huge microscope, comprising four days and 72 holes in an unofficial winter event played amid laid-back Bahamian island breezes. As Tiger Woods readies to cut the ribbon on Phase II of his career, his play showed new possibilities for what lies ahead.

Lest any of us forget, Phase I was pretty damn special.

Woods’ longtime friend and former Isleworth neighbor, PGA Tour Champions player and Golf Channel analyst John Cook, watched Woods at the Hero World Challenge and was convinced of this: He easily passed the eye test. Sure, he finished far back – 15th among 17 players for a guy who always believed that second “sucks” – but his overall play was encouraging, enough to make many reassess what Woods might do in ‘17.

As in, gee whiz, after nearly 16 months away, this guy is farther along than we thought.

“I’ve been around him the last 20 years, been through the good, bad and the ugly with him, and from what I saw, he’s as close to the good as I’ve seen in a long time,” Cook said.

Back across that deep blue Atlantic Ocean, a more prominent Ohio State Buckeye than Cook took notice, too. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t glued to the television, but the handful of swings he stopped to watch left him impressed.

Nicklaus, who turned 77 on Jan. 21, the man whose record 18 major championships Woods circled on his wall and began hunting many years ago, always has been generous when asked about Woods’ potential to catch him. Sure Tiger could win 18 majors, he’d say, but he still has to “go out and do it.” Woods had eight majors by age 26, and 14 by 32, and it appeared to be a foregone conclusion he’d get there.

Today, Woods (79 Tour victories, 14 majors) is 41 and has undergone double-digit surgeries on his knees and back (three disc procedures removing him from the PGA Tour for 16 months). He’s physically fit but frail. How long will he be able to swing a golf club 120 mph? Another decade, he hopes. Nicklaus peers down from the mountaintop, does some math, and offers this:

“I still think that he’s got 10 years of majors in front of him,” Nicklaus said. “Physically, he’s a great-looking specimen. He’s got a great golf swing, he’s got a great game. If he can mentally get the game back together to where he believes he can do what he wants to do, we’ll see. Out of 40 majors in the next 10 years, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that he can win five of them.”

Pie-in-the-sky thinking? Perhaps. Vegas would tell you Woods might catch Sam Snead (PGA Tour-record 82 victories), but never Nicklaus. Four more majors to tie? That’s a huge haul. Crazy talk. But is it not more ludicrous to believe that Woods never will win again?

New PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said, “I keep getting asked, do I think he’s going to win this year? Just so we’re clear, when he’s 75 years old, I’m going to still think he can win on that given week.”

Here’s what we learned in the Bahamas: Woods never will rank among the longest hitters anymore as he once did, overpowering par 5s week to week. He did show adequate speed in a swing that was more flowing, more athletic. More natural, much the way he swung the club in his free-wheeling youth. There was ample power, enough for him to send tee shots bounding past those
of Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler, both of whom hit it plenty far.
Woods’ iron play was sharp, setting up some easy birdies on par-3 holes, and an old friend re-emerged in Tiger’s repertoire: Woods was moving the ball right to left again. (“For a little while, all he could do was hit low, crop-dusting cuts,” Cook said.) As for Woods’ chipping, which unraveled to the point of embarrassment in early 2015? At Hero, it was frequently average, but on a few occasions – a deft flop he executed from rock-hard hardpan to 6 feet to remain bogeyless in a second-round 65 – it was downright spectacular.

Woods’ simpler action should bode well in terms of placing less stress on a body that can’t absorb much more. He is adjusting to maximum practice ball counts and lighter workout regimens. Woods’ best accomplishment at the Hero? It wasn’t leading the field in birdies (24), but simply standing after walking 90 holes. That was the test. One year earlier, he’d had trouble physically getting out of bed.

“Well, this part of it, getting back to this point is beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime,” Woods said. “The pain issues that I had, it was rough. To battle back, to battle through it, to have the friends I’ve had who have supported me, helped me through it … quite frankly, there were some pretty dire times where I just couldn’t move.”

Tiger Woods had plenty of shining moments in his return to golf.