Just a few months ago, Tiger Woods wasn’t sure if he’d ever play competitive golf again, but after a promising return to action he is already plotting an assault on the majors in 2018.
Woods’ pain-free comeback at the Hero World Challenge prompted the sport’s biggest name to claim he is “excited” about the future.
Making his long-awaited return from a fourth back surgery — it was his first tournament for 301 days since pulling out the Dubai Desert Classic in February — Woods posted three sub-70 rounds at the Albany Club in the Bahamas to finish in a tie for ninth place in the 18-man field.
He may have finished 10 shots behind winner Rickie Fowler but Woods’ eight-under-par total was good enough to beat world No.1 Dustin Johnson, FedEx Cup winner and world No. 3 Justin Thomas and US Open champion Brooks Koepka.
The performance lifted Woods from 1,199th to 668th in the world golf rankings, but more crucially, the 41-year-old was swinging freely with no sign of the back pain that has hampered him in recent years.
“I’m excited,” said Woods, who’s had eight long-term injury layoffs for various ailments since winning the last of his 14 majors at the 2008 US Open.
“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.
“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 — where I’m going to start, how much I’m going to play, rest periods, training cycles, the whole nine yards.”
Woods, who remains four majors behind Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18, had a vertebrae fusion in his lower back in April, and admitted before the Bahamas event that he had no idea how he was going to play.
But he twice tied for the lead Friday and wasn’t holding back, regularly outdriving his younger playing partners who have taken over the sport in his absence, including Thomas, who is one of the biggest hitters on the PGA Tour with an average of 309.7 yards last season.
“It’s nice to get back out there where I can take it over a couple of corners and extend one on the par 5s,” said Woods, who joked before the event that his two young children view him as a “YouTube golfer” because they never saw him in his pomp.
“I was a little frustrated with my iron game; that has been the hallmark of my career. It’s still surprising how far I’m hitting it, and I have to make those adjustments.
“You add in the adrenaline, and you’re thinking there is no way you hit it that way. Those are things I have to get a hold of. Overall I am very pleased.”
Although this was not a full-field event and it was played on a relatively easy course — there are five par 5s on the Albany track — there is a sense there is something different about this latest comeback by Woods, who has won 79 times on the PGA Tour.
With the exception of a rough patch during his third round on Saturday — he was four over for his front nine in windy conditions — he seemed in control of his game and showed signs of the old magic that made him into what many consider to be the greatest player of all time.
“If you’ve been asleep for the last eight years and you woke up and the last time you saw Tiger Woods play was in 2009 you’d think, ‘what’s the big deal? That’s exactly the same guy,'” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee after round one.
“This is the best I’ve seen him swing since before all the injuries and before all that stuff that everybody would rather really not want to talk about.
“His ball speed on one shot was 178 mph, another shot was 180 that’s about a 96 mph fastball. That is big league stuff. The last time Tiger played, his clubhead speed was 114 mph. That basically translates to a 10, 12 mph difference in ball speed.
“This is Tiger Woods feeling good, swinging good.”
‘Reasons to be optimistic’
Chamblee’s bosses at the Golf Channel will no doubt be feeling good and hoping Woods can remain injury free, given that their viewing figures for day one of the tournament in the Bahamas were up 27% from last year.
They were the most-watched cable sports network in the U.S. when Woods teed off on Thursday afternoon.
Although the signs are good and Woods claims to be pain free, it could be too soon to say he really is “back”.
This time last year, after carding an impressive 24 birdies at the Hero, he said he felt good heading into the new season, but lasted only three more rounds, missing the cut in California before his back gave way in Dubai.
“It’s exciting, but you have to try and temper it a little bit,” said his caddie Joe LaCava.
“We felt the same way last year. Let’s not get too excited. But you have to like what you see, right? There are more reasons to be optimistic.”
The buzz generated by Woods overshadowed Fowler’s victory Sunday. He shot a closing 11-under 61 — the lowest of his professional career — to clinch victory by four shots from fellow American Charley Hoffman.
“I wanted to make sure I got out in front of [Woods],” Fowler said as he collected the Hero World Challenge “Tiger trophy.”
“Because I know this isn’t the last we’ll see of him.”