Tiger Woods back on the leaderboard and turning heads
Former world number one led at one stage in the Bahamas before settling for a 68
Tiger Woods plays his shot from the fourth tee during the second round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Pre-tournament Tiger Woods was very reserved in his comments, saying that he was just looking to get through four rounds on his return after 301 days away and back fusion surgery. After an opening round 69 it was more of the Woods we all know as he declared that he was confident he could win the Hero World Challenge. On Friday in the Bahamas he let his clubs do the talking to show he really meant what he said by carding a 68 – the highlight of which was a stunning eagle at the ninth – to go into the weekend at seven under par and five shots off the blistering pace of 12 under set by Charley Hoffman who has Jordan Spieth and Tommy Fleetwood as his closest pursuers three shots behind.
But this is very much the Tiger show. Making the turn in just 31 shots the golf world was looking at a sight many thought they would never see again: the name ‘Tiger Woods’ at the top of the leaderboard.
Unlike previous comebacks there were no signs of any niggling injuries, no wincing when picking up tees, no holding back on drives – he clocked up clubhead speed of 180mph at one stage – and, crucially, no chipping yips.
A few chunked chips on Thursday had been the one negative after that opening 69 but, proving once again how mentally strong Woods is, the play around the greens was exemplary on Friday.
Up-and-downs at the eight, 10th and 11th put paid to any talk of nerves with a wedge in hand and any lingering doubts were certainly put to bed on the par three 17th when, facing 60 feet of green to go over for his second shot with heavy break from the right, Woods perfectly clipped a low checking shot up to holeside before tapping in for par. The strike was so precise that barely a blade of grass came off the glass-like putting surfaces.
“It’s proved that the surgery was successful and rehab has been fantastic. I have the chance now to play competitive golf again,” Woods said afterwards when asked how satisfying his play had been.
“I’m only just getting back so I have a long way to go [to reach to highest level]. It’ll take more practice, more training and more tournaments.”
It’s encouraging to see Woods taking this, the 10th comeback of his career, one step at a time. But on the front nine there were occasions when he must have felt he was never really away.
A birdie at the first following a perfect drive and a clipped wedge to five feet got the show on the road before further birdies at the par five third and par four fourth moved him into a tie for the lead at six under.
But the best was still to come. After a booming drive of 295 yards down the fairway at the par five ninth he was left with 271 yards to the green. From there he hammered a high, piercing three-wood which landed on the green as softly as a butterfly with sore feet before he rolled in the left-to-right putt for an eagle and the lead on his own at eight under.
Some numbers issued by the Golf Channel after Thursday’s first round showed the ‘Tiger-effect’ in full focus with the channel’s live stream pulling in more viewers in just one day than all but five entire (all four days) PGA Tour events last season.
One would have to think those numbers were even higher on Friday as word went around of the way Woods was playing.
The back nine, as he admitted himself, was a little disappointing, with just one birdie coming his way at the par five 11th.
“After that 31 on the front I could have got two more on the back nine, so that’s frustrating,” Woods said afterwards.
“I struggled all day with speed on the greens. They were a foot faster than yesterday, they were really dry and rolling out.”
Indeed that was what caused a first dropped shot of the day at the 12th after he raced his birdie putt past and failed to make the par putt back. A similar three-putt followed at the par five 15th, leading to a disappointing par before a final dropped shot of the day at the 18th – after driving right into the scrubland – will leave somewhat of a sour taste.
But, overall, the signs are good. Already Woods has gone in to eighth favourite to win the US Masters in April at 20/1, shorter odds than the defending champion Sergio Garcia among others. And who would bet against him?
Collated second round scores & totals in the USPGA Tour Hero World Challenge, Albany, New Providence, Bahamas (USA unless stated, par 72):
132 Charley Hoffman 69 63
135 Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) 66 69, Jordan Spieth 68 67
136 Justin Rose (Eng) 68 68
137 Francesco Molinari (Ita) 69 68, Tiger Woods 69 68, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn) 71 66, Matt Kuchar 67 70, Rickie Fowler 67 70
138 Kevin Chappell 68 70, Patrick Reed 72 66
139 Justin Thomas 69 70
140 Dustin Johnson 68 72
141 Henrik Stenson (Swe) 70 71
142 Alex Noren (Swe) 73 69, Kevin Kisner 70 72
148 Daniel Berger 75 73
149 Brooks Koepka 71 78