Mixed signs ahead of Tiger Woods’ return to competition

Fourteen-time Major winner fit and set to compete in Hero World Challenge in Bahamas

 Tiger Woods: finally pain-free and looking forward to returning to competitive action in  the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.  Photograph:  Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

Tiger Woods: finally pain-free and looking forward to returning to competitive action in the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Photograph: Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

 

The drip-feeding of information about Tiger Woods’s positive wellbeing – firstly from Rickie Fowler, then from former tour professional Brad Faxon who accompanied him in a round of golf with US president Donald Trump and world number one Dustin Johnson – will be confirmed or otherwise when the 14-times Major champion, who hasn’t played competitively since early February, returns to tournament play at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

For the 41-year-old Woods, the tournament – one which supports his charitable foundation and with only a select 18-man field – offers him the opportunity to return on his own terms; a guaranteed four rounds of competition in a relatively relaxed environment among players who have accepted his invitation.

Woods underwent a fourth surgical procedure on his injured back (a spinal fusion) in April and adopted a carefully mapped out rehabilitation programme.

Although there were serious question marks on how well his recovery had developed during the summer months, his practice rounds of late with Fowler, and a high-profile outing last week in Florida in the group that included Trump, have provided indications that he is playing pain-free again.

Recently, Fowler spoke of how Woods was hitting it “way past me” in practice rounds the two had played together.

And those comments were confirmed by Faxon, who completed the fourball over the Thanksgiving holiday at Trump’s course.

Indeed, former tour player Faxon observed that Woods had even managed to outdrive Johnson 50 per cent of the time in their fourball match. In that outing, Woods and Johnson played off the back tees with Faxon and Trump off forward tees, playing a course some 1,000 yards shorter.

Of the round, Faxon remarked: “He was happy and, more than anything, he is finally pain-free. The issues he had with the back the last couple of comebacks seem to be gone. He looked effortless, he looked free, he had some power . . . I was impressed with how far he hit the ball . . . he looked great. I think more than anything, he looked at ease. He was not concerned about swinging hard and going at it with driver. The ball flight, the sound off the club, all of it was right there.”

A struggle

Woods too spoke to reporters after playing a practice round in the Bahamas on Sunday, reaffirming that all is well in his world.

“The fact I don’t have any pain in my lower back compared to what I was living with for years, it’s just remarkable,” said Woods, who hasn’t played competitively since back spasms forced his withdrawal from the Dubai Desert Classic in February.

In fact, Woods – a 33/1 outsider ahead of his reappearance – only teed up twice competitively this year: firstly, in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines where he missed the cut and then in Dubai.

The last time Woods completed four rounds was actually at last year’s Hero World Challenge, when he finished 15th of the 17 players. That was his only competitive outing of 2016.

Of his return and where it might take him, Woods observed: “It could be the next step, I just don’t know and that’s tough to live with. It’s been a struggle for years. To finally come out on the good side of it, it’s exciting. I am stiffer, I’m fused. But I don’t have the pain and if I don’t have the pain, life is so much better,” adding:

“I haven’t really competed in two years, really. I haven’t done much. I’m looking forward to competing again and finding rhythm and the feel of playing tournament golf and just hitting shots. I haven’t really had a scorecard in my hand in a while and that’s going to be different,” said Woods who has three of the four Major champions from this year – Brooks Koepka (US Open), Jordan Spieth (British Open) and Justin Thomas (US PGA) – playing.

The exception is Sergio Garcia. The US Masters champion is competing in the Australian PGA Championship in Queensland, which will be the Spaniard’s final appearance of the year. Michael Hoey is the lone Irishman in the field there.

Dubliner Gavin Moynihan, who has secured his full playing card for the European Tour for 2018, spent much of the past week practising at The Els Club in Dubai and will make his first appearance of the season at the Mauritius Open, which counts on the European Tour.

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