Tiger Woods: A comeback that is far more reassuring

The latest in the series of Tiger Woods’ comeback bids has proved encouraging. Following a fourth back surgery in April, Tiger returned to competitive golf in the $3.5 million Hero World Challenge — the event he hosts — at Albany in The Bahamas, in November, and gave the impression that this time, he was well and truly back.

Tiger Woods hits from a bunker on the 17th hole during the final round of the Hero World Challenge golf tournament at Albany Golf Club in Nassau, Bahamas.   -  AP

From success to scandals to surgeries, Tiger Woods has seen it all. At present, the golf legend is busy scripting a comeback tale, which the world wants to see end on a happy note.

The latest in the series of Tiger’s comeback bids — 10th time to be precise from layoffs of 10 weeks or more — has proved encouraging for his fans, peers and golf experts alike. Following a fourth back surgery in April, Tiger returned to competitive golf in the $3.5 million Hero World Challenge — the event he hosts — at Albany in The Bahamas recently and gave the impression that this time, he was well and truly back.

In the 18-man invitational field, including eight of the top-10 ranked players, Tiger finished joint ninth. But far more importantly, he could complete four rounds without looking in any discomfort.

Tiger drove to distances exceeding 300 yards off the tee. Though understandably rusty, especially around the greens, he stitched together three sub-par rounds and finished strongly. What more, he even stayed briefly atop the leaderboard on the second day!

Against the background of some of his previous comebacks, that never really were, Tiger’s latest ‘return’ was watched with scepticism by many. After all, there was enough evidence from the past to believe that he had underestimated the extent of blow his body had taken. He had clearly rushed his return more than once, and then was confined to bed when the pain became unbearable.

On the eve of the event at Albany, Tiger looked happy and spoke at length with the golf writers. He didn’t look tired of answering questions, or appear to be in a hurry to get back to his routine ahead of the tournament.

“As I was telling a lot of my friends at home, I miss playing golf for fun. Go out there and hit, and giggle and play for some denominations and have a good time. I hadn’t done that in two years. I play nine holes here and 18 holes here, and then I have to take three days off because my back was killing me.

“But this surgery (in April) was about quality of life because I didn’t really have much. I’ve been in bed for about two years and hadn’t been able to do much. I wasn’t. People ask me, ‘why don’t you go out to dinner?’ I can’t, I can’t sit.

“So, it feels good to be able to have the ability to go out and do things like that, and on top of that, to be able to participate in my kids’ sports again. As you know, I love sports, I like playing sports, and I grew up doing it, so to be able to play with them again, man, I’ve missed it.”

Rickie Fowler poses with the trophy after winning the Hero World Challenge golf tournament at the Albany Golf Club in Nassau, Bahamas. The American golfer, on the final day, pulled off a course record 61 to snatch a four-stroke victory past overnight leader Charley Hoffman.   -  AP

 

It left none in doubt that Tiger was happy to be back. He had no great expectations from himself. He was ready to test his fitness in the midst of the best golfers in the world. He did not look too far.

What truly summed up Tiger’s joy were these words: “The neatest thing is to be able to get out of bed and grab a club and not use it as a crutch. So now I’m able to take a swing. That’s so exciting, you have no idea how exciting that is.”

It must be remembered that many of the present-day elite golfers had not played competitively with Tiger. They all wanted to feel the aura of the man they idolised. They wanted Tiger to return to top-flight golf and stay healthy. At the same time, they all wanted to beat him, too.

Undeterred, the winner of 79 PGA Tour titles, including 14 major championships, opened with a three-under 69. This was in sharp contrast to the last start Tiger had (on February 2) of five-over 77 before pulling out of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

Five-time winner of his home event and paired with the 2017 FedEx Cup champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year, Justin Thomas, for Round One, Tiger found 12 greens in regulation, hit seven of the13 fairways and needed 28 putts during the round. At this stage, he was three strokes off the lead, held by Tommy Fleetwood, who made his debut in the event with a 66.

The opening day performance from Tiger pushed every other showing to the background.

On Day Two, Tiger went a stroke better. His card of 68 included an ‘eagle’ on the par-5 ninth hole. His previous ‘eagle’ on the PGA Tour came in the second round of the 2015 Wyndham Championship. Two back-to-back solid rounds raised expectations, as Tiger needed 26 putts on this day, two less than the opening round. Charley Hoffman moved to the top of the leaderboard at 12-under, five better than Tiger.

The third round, played in windy conditions, proved too challenging for everyone in the field, and Tiger lost his way a bit. He could only manage a 75 and slipped to joint-10th spot.

“It was a rough start. Whatever I did right ended up in a bad spot, and whatever I did wrong was really wrong. It kept going the wrong way. Well, that’s just golf. We’re always going to face adversity. It was frustrating that I couldn’t get it turned around on the easier holes. That’s not very good,” Tiger said.

On the final day, starting seven strokes off the lead, Rickie Fowler turned the title race on its head with a course record 61 and snatched a four-stroke victory past overnight leader Hoffman, who had opened the round with a four-stroke lead over Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose.

But Tiger stayed in the focus with another steady 68. He ended the event with 17 birdies — seven less than what he fired in 2016 for the 15th spot.

The performance lifted his world ranking from 1199 to 668. “I’m excited. I’m excited the way this week has gone on. I still got my training in. It was a very good week. I really drove it well and I really putted well. I know I had one day (third round) where I didn’t have speed on the greens, but I hit a lot of good putts this week,” Tiger said.

Looking ahead, Tiger was candid. “I don’t know what my schedule is going to be but my expectations are, we’ll be playing next year. We’re going to figure out what’s the best way for me to build my schedule for the major championships: play how much, what my training cycles are going to be and play enough but don’t play too much.”

Indeed, from the perspective of the golf world, the biggest takeaway is: Tiger is healthy and back on course.