Emotional Tiger Woods shows flashes of his vintage game
Multiple Major winner shows no evidence of back injury which has plagued him for two years
Tiger Woods playing from the eighth tee during the first round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tiger Woods, looking fit and well and exhibiting his full gambit of emotions and shot-making, returned to tournament action in the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas: the 41-year-old 14-times Major champion fist-pumped, cursed, duffed chips, twirled his clubs, slammed clubs, hit stunning approaches and, perhaps most importantly of all, showed no evidence of the long-term back injury which has plagued him for the past two years.
In returning to competitive play at the limited 18-player field tournament which benefits his own charitable foundation, Woods provided snapshots of his old self in opening with a three-under-par 69 that constituted a fine return in his first outing in 301 days, dating back to the Dubai Desert Classic in February.
It left Woods three shots off the clubhouse lead set by Tommy Fleetwood, the Englishman – who won the Race to Dubai order of merit and playing for a sixth straight week – hoping to add to his stellar season’s work ahead of his wedding on Tuesday.
Although eight of the world’s top-10 ranked players made the journey to the Bahamas, all eyes were on the Woods – ranked 1,199th in the latest world rankings – as his comeback from injury, following spinal fusion surgery back in April, indicated that this latest coming could prove to be the real deal.
“For me, I thought I did great. I hadn’t played in a while. After some of the difficulties I have been through, to go around and score like I did, that was nice. It was fun to get out there and actually be part of a scorecard again,” said Woods.
The fist pumps? Well, that trademark display of emotion first resurfaced on the fourth green where he made a par save from 15 feet. “It was nice to make that putt, to keep the rhythm going,” he admitted.
It wasn’t to be an isolated show of emotion, though; and caddie Joe LaCava and the man himself exchanged a few more fist pumps as Woods claimed three birdies on his homeward run.
The expletive? Well, that slip of the tongue came on the Par 5 ninth where he suffered his first bogey. Woods failed to get down from 30ft after doffing his chip and taking three putts. If there was any irritation, it was that he was over par on the Par 5s in his round.
Yet for the most part it was a positive resumption to his playing career after injuries and personal travails. Moving without any signs of distress, and his swing speed nudging 180 miles per hour to confirm that physical recovery, Woods was relaxed yet competitive, as demonstrated by his irritation when that duffed pitch led to a dropped shot on nine.
Woods was tracking towards the business end of the leaderboard with birdies on the 10th, 13th and 14th – where his approach from 95 yards to 12in was vintage – only to come undone on the Par 5 15th where a wild drive into wild bushes led to a search party eventually locating his ball.
After a penalty drop, which dug into the sandy terrain, his third shot came up short of a dune and he failed to get up-and-down to save par. That bogey brought a hiccup to his homeward charge, although he made a par save on the last to ensure a sub-70 round.
“I didn’t know what I could do. I have been playing golf at home, but it is a little different when you have got to tee it up in a tournament. So, I had a lot of adrenaline going, I hit the ball longer than I normally do and had to dial it back a little. Those are the internals struggles that I haven’t been through as a player in a while,” said Woods after his round.
Former US Open champion and Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange took to social media to respond to a comment he had heard that Woods had “a lot to prove to these young players in the field”.
Strange responded: “He has nothing to prove to anyone. Let us all watch this week and hope he takes a step forward. Let’s pass judgment in 8-10 months, not this week!”
Fleetwood’s season continued to flourish, as he opened with a 66 that gave him the first round lead.
“I felt comfortable with my swing from the get-go, and bogey-free, you’re always moving forward if you are bogey-free,” said Fleetwood.