Tiger Woods made his return to competitive golf last week, after a 15-month leave of absence, in the comfortable surroundings of the Hero World Challenge, a tournament in the Bahamas for which he was the host. The field comprised 18 players, including 11 members of the recently victorious US Ryder Cup team (there are no prizes for figuring Phil Mickelson was the odd man out) and such luminaries as the Open champion, Henrik Stenson. Woods had not played competitively for 466 days, during which time he’d had two back operations.
On the eve of the event, he was asked how he’d feel about his return to competition, not least given that he had withdrawn from a tournament in October because his game felt “vulnerable”. Said the 14-times major champion: “I don’t know. I’ve been away from it for a long time.”
Woods would be teeing it up at the Albany Golf Club (“a remote billionaire enclave”, to borrow from one newspaper) with a world ranking of 898 and not having won a major championship since 2008. The man who has 18 majors, Jack Nicklaus, declared: “I’ve always thought that Tiger has got at least another 10 years of good competitive golf in front of him, if he’s healthy and as talented as he is. I don’t think [my record] is safe.” I absolutely refuse to think Jack believes any of that – it’s not just the recurring back problems and surgery Woods has undergone but how far his game and mentality are removed from where they used to be and how the fear he would previously engender in his rivals is now non-existent – but I guess it’s the decent thing for him to say.
Anyhow, Tiger started off the first round like a train and finished like a wreck. He had four birdies in his first eight holes. Unfortunately, the last ten holes featured four sixes, including double-bogeys at 16 and 18, adding up to a 73. “I hit it in three bushes and had a water ball,” he said. “So it could have been something really good. It was a solid start, I just made a few mistakes and things started going the wrong way. I let a good round slip away at the end.” On Twitter, his former coach, Hank Haney, opined: “From what I saw today I see Tiger winning more tournaments and at least one more major, lots of positives.” Not quite in the Nicklaus fan-club league but a confident compliment nonetheless.
On Friday Woods had four birdies in his last eight holes – but this time with three others as well and no bogeys! Hey presto, a 65. “Yesterday I had it going for three holes [he’d had birdies on 6, 7 and 8] and I lost it and finished over par. Today was different. I was able to play the middle part of the round better. I kept the momentum going and moved myself up the board.” And moved his audience to the edge of their seats.
He maintained his good play on Saturday, at one stage reaching 11 under par – not close enough to the lead to make him a likely victor but within reach of a top-five finish. However, in the end he had to settle for a 70, finishing again with a double-bogey at the last. Starting out at eight under on Sunday, he produced a real golfing mish-mash: a five-birdie 76, which included two sevens and a completed hat-trick of double-bogeys at the last. It amounted to a four-under-par total of 284 and 15th place, 14 shots shy of the winner, Hideki Matsuyama. But no one else matched his tally of 24 birdies.
“Getting to this point has tested me beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Woods later. “The pain, the issues I have, it was just rough – there were some pretty dire times where I just couldn’t move. It was a great week to be back competing again and playing against the best players in the world. I made a lot of birdies but also made a lot of mistakes and some poor decisions.”
OK, so my golf judgement versus Jack Nicklaus’s? He’s won 18 major championships and a zillion other tournaments; I’ve won a monthly medal and a golf writers’ trophy. However, I think there is almost zero chance of Tiger wining four more majors. Of course, I’m not competent to argue with Hank Haney either, and his more measured assessment sounds more realistic even if, to me, it’s too optimistic. We shall see. Whatever happens, Tiger has given himself, and us, reason to anticipate the forthcoming season with added interest.
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