NASSAU, Bahamas – A flop shot that required feel. A wedge to a back pin that he had to trust. Tiger Woods followed those two birdies with a perfect 6-iron that he wanted to be even better, urging it to move “one yard … one yard!”
The golf ball didn’t listen. Television viewers did.
And his three straight birdies after going 466 days without competition sure got everyone’s attention, even those who were playing.
“When I saw that he was 4 under through eight, I wanted to withdraw so I could go watch him,” Russell Knox said.
Was he back to being Tiger Woods?
Of course not.
This was only the front nine of the first round at the Hero World Challenge. By the end of the week, Woods was 15th out of 17 players . What returned was the excitement of having him inside the ropes again.
“Everybody loves the comeback story,” Matt Kuchar said. “A guy like Tiger, good or bad, draws attention. If it’s good, it gets really exciting.”
So he’s back. And now he’s gone again.
Still to be determined is when he will play and how much. There has been chatter, and nothing more at this stage, of Woods playing in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship the third week in January. HSBC already has Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson, not to mention Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson, and might not want to break the bank. But a happy and healthy week for Woods in the Bahamas – not to mention his 24 birdies – certainly raised interest.
Torrey Pines is a week later and a more likely start.
Woods said in his “heart of hearts” he wants to play a full schedule. It will a different one, at least early.
Riviera is back on the schedule because his foundation runs it. The Valspar Championship at Innisbrook is in play because it’s a week after one World Golf Championship and two weeks before another – both in the month leading to the Masters. Woods isn’t eligible for either WGC event and won’t be unless he wins before then.
That leads to the more critical question.
When will it be time to stop marveling at seeing the red shirt and start judging him by red numbers on the scoreboard?
Woods doesn’t like any victory that doesn’t come with a trophy, so he was quick to point out “silly mistakes” and six double bogeys whenever he caught himself getting too excited talking about his good golf. But he had reason to smile. Only the winner, Hideki Matsuyama, had as many sub-par holes. Woods shot 65 in the second round with no bogeys, not a tall order at Albany except that it was his first tournament in 15 months.
This was a good week for him.
His swing showed very little stress. It was graceful, not violent. Woods knows he isn’t among the top power players anymore, though he showed ample length off the tee, even finding an extra gear on occasion. He said before the tournament he had all the shots, and there was little evidence to suggest otherwise.
He just didn’t score very well. But only those wanting to see him fail cared about that after such a long layoff.
That will change over time. There’s just no consensus on when.
“Give him three or four tournaments, maybe six tournaments, maybe around the Masters,” Henrik Stenson said. “Probably give him a number of tournaments and he might be in contention in one of the early ones next year. Then you know you have the answer quicker. It’s easy to overanalyze a very limited amount of golf.”
Kuchar said he has low expectations of Woods in the Bahamas, and was impressed to see him start 73-65-70.
“I still don’t hold him to any standard just yet,” he said. “He’s kind of a new man. Great to see. Shoot, he gets back in the hunt and wins a tournament, you’d have to put those expectations right back on him. For having nearly two years off, it’s hard to hold a guy to his typical expectation level.”
Brandt Snedeker was curious to see how much progress Woods makes in his next tournament. Others, like Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson, had a longer view when it came to measuring Woods by his scores.
“To me, it’s if we can chat next year at this point,” Johnson said. “It’s not so much the golf game and the golf swing and the putts being holed and contention. It’s physically. Can he withstand a Tiger year, which is what, 15 to 20 events?”
Curiosity has given way to anticipation. Doubts have been replaced by optimism.
Reality is still months away, if not longer.