Is Tiger Woods Really Back?

Posted by: mike November 28th, 2017

By Jeff Shain

Golf Insiders contributor

 

If Tiger Woods had any notion of easing back into the spotlight with his comeback at the Hero World Challenge, his friends aren’t doing him any favors.

Not that the spotlight doesn’t immediately pivot to Woods anytime he says he’s teeing it up somewhere – even more so considering he’s logged just seven tournament rounds in the past 27 months. The curiosity factor doesn’t diminish. 

But it also turns up the intensity when the progress reports come so remarkably glowing.

Jason Day: “He says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is. From what I hear, he's hitting it very long. And if he’s hitting it long and straight, then that’s going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods.”

Justin Rose: “He looks fit, healthy and I think from there he can play golf, right? He’s obviously got all the talent in the world and I think he’s motivated, too, which is great. If he puts his mind to something, I'm sure he can achieve what his goals are.”

Rickie Fowler, asked about rumors that Woods had been outdriving him in practice sessions at Medalist: “Oh, yeah. Way by.”tiger woods

Classic tease. Then again, Fowler isn’t exactly Dustin Johnson. But Dustin Johnson is, and he met up with Woods last weekend for a friendly foursome with President Trump. Brad Faxon was the fourth, from which he offered a first-person account to Golfweek.

“Probably on the 10 holes that they were both hitting driver,” Faxon said, “Tiger hit it past Dustin half the time and Dustin hit it past Tiger half the time. He looked great.”

Heeeere we go. Before Faxon’s account, Woods already was an eyebrow-raising 50-1 wager to win the 2018 Masters. Within 72 hours, that went down to 40-1.

(For what it’s worth, you can get Woods at 33-1 to win the Hero, same as Charley Hoffman and Kevin Chappell. At 28-1, you can get newly crowned Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who has three top-10s in the past eight weeks.)

And now your appetite has been whetted, hasn’t it? If you’re a golf fan, you at least find time to at least catch this weekend’s highlights. Maybe peer in between during football’s commercial breaks. Linger if he shows a spark.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m saying he’s going to win next week,” Faxon cautioned.

Of course. Then again, folks are going to read into it what they will.

That’s what happened a year ago, when Woods ended a 15-month hiatus by teeing it up in the Bahamas. Devotees were encouraged that his 24 birdies topped the field. Doubters pointed out he mixed in enough bogeys (and worse) to finish 15th out of 17 entrants, with one round in the 60s and closing with a 76.

Who got the upper hand? Call it incomplete, since Woods played just three competitive rounds after that – shooting 76-72 to miss the cut at Torrey Pines in January and withdrawing after an opening 77 the following week in Dubai.

Two months later came spinal fusion surgery, resetting the timetable anew.

To his credit, Woods has resisted the urge to rush back. He laid off 15 months before last year’s Hero World Challenge. He hasn’t hit a competitive shot in 10 months since Dubai.

“I haven’t really competed in two years, really,” Woods told Golf Channel after a Monday practice round at Albany, this week’s host venue.

“I haven’t really done much. I’m looking forward to competing again and finding the rhythm and the feel of playing tournament golf and just hitting shots. I haven’t really had a scorecard in my hand in a while and that’s going to be different.”

It’s a point brought up in some of the testimonials as well. It’s one thing to hit it well in a casual round – even with the president looking on – but another when all the strokes count.

A question also has been raised whether Woods has walked four rounds in succession since the surgery. Certainly golf carts were involved in his round with Trump, and Woods zipped around Monday’s practice in a cart as well.

Whatever happens this week, remember it’s the beginning of a new chapter. The concept of Tiger Woods winning his first start after a long injury layoff – though still possible – also probably breathed its last at the 2008 U.S. Open.

He’ll be one month shy of 42 when he tees off Thursday, with four back operations and four more to his left knee on his medical chart. That doesn’t count the myriad of sprains, strains and spasms that have piled up over the past 7 ½ years. Or whatever a dependence on painkillers and sleep aids did to his body.

And sometimes mysterious flaws appear. When the Hero made a pit stop in Orlando three years ago, on Woods’ former home course at Isleworth, he discovered his short game had deserted him. Four days of stubs and flubs left patrons aghast, and it took two months to regain confidence.

Though from eyewitness account, that doesn’t seem to be a concern this time.

“Tiger looked like he had all the touch shots down,” Faxon said. “On the very first hole he hit a pitch shot over a bunker that looked great. Hit some tough little pitch shots, tough chip shots and hit some close. Some to gimme distance.”

Heeeere we go. Deep breaths, folks.

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Jeff Shain is a former Orlando Sentinel golf writer, part of nearly two decades covering the sport that includes other stops at The Miami Herald and The Island Packet in South Carolina. He's also a digital contributor to PGATour.com and Pro Golf Weekly, and co-hosts the Prime Sports Golf podcast at PrimeSportsNetwork.com.