Tiger Woods primed and ready for long-awaited comeback

Former world number one back in Bahamas after injury kept him out for past 15 months

 Tiger Woods practises  ahead of the Hero World Challenge at the Albany Golf Club in  the Bahamas. Photograph:  Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tiger Woods practises ahead of the Hero World Challenge at the Albany Golf Club in the Bahamas. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

 

Twenty-three minutes into Tiger Woods’s news conference, the skies opened and the rain lashed the roof of the temporary tent where Woods was taking questions, drowning out every fifth or sixth word of his responses.

It didn’t matter. Woods’s body language told the story of how far he has come since last year’s Hero World Challenge.

At the 2015 event, a glum Woods sat slumped in his seat and said there really was nothing he could look forward to and that any further success in golf “beyond this will be gravy.”

Twelve months later, Woods smiled easily and sat on a white folding chair on the dais with no apparent physical discomfort. After being sidelined from competitive golf for 15 months because of a back injury that required two operations, Woods looked relaxed and ready to resume his career on Thursday in the first round of the unofficial PGA Tour event that he hosts. The tournament has an 18-man field, 72 holes and no cut.

“There’s nerves, of course, because I care about what I do out there,” Woods said. But there is no physical pain. “I’m sitting here in front of you guys with a different reality because things have improved so much.”

His competitive future was a question mark last December because his back made even a sedentary existence difficult. “There was a lot of trepidation,” he said. “Not being able to get out of bed, not being able to move; how can I expect to come out here and swing a golf club at 120 miles an hour?”

Storied career

He was scheduled to play in the opening event of the 2016-17 wraparound season last month in northern California, but withdrew a few days after committing to play, describing his game as “vulnerable”.

Part of the problem, Woods said, was that two weeks before his scheduled return, he served as an assistant captain for the victorious US Ryder Cup team and was not able to squeeze in any practice. On top of that, he had not played the host course, Silverado, since his college days at Stanford.

In his storied career, he has entered – and won – tournaments with less preparation, but it has been more than three years since Woods’ last title. Common sense ultimately prevailed where his competitiveness long reigned.

Second Captains

“I felt like I was ready to compete,” Woods said. “But if I’ve waited at the time, what, 13 months, what’s another couple more months? So let’s be patient, a little easier on myself, a little smarter, and let’s come back when things are a little more together.”

For Woods, a 14-time Major champion, there can be no easing back into competition. A video taken of Woods’s swing during his practice round on Monday was dissected on social media by scores of armchair instructors.

However, he will find no more low-key environment than the Albany Golf Club, a luxury resort playground tucked like a pocket square in southwest New Providence Island. Woods, whose net worth is measured in the hundreds of millions, has a home in the community, as does Justin Rose, who is in the tournament field.

Leisure time

“Albany, we have one-tenth of all the billionaires on the planet here, and that’s saying something,” Woods said. “For them to come down here and feel safe and feel like they can be here and operate and run their businesses but also bring their families and enjoy leisure time here as well, and have that privacy, is incredible.”

During the early stages of the tournament, the crowd with credentials following Woods inside the ropes may rival his galleries in size. Between taking photographs of Woods with his smartphone, a security guard assigned to Woods’s detail said he expected the crowds to be small during the first two rounds before picking up on Saturday and Sunday.

Before 9am on Tuesday, Woods was tailed by about three dozen people, including journalists and representatives of his namesake foundation and the tournament’s title sponsor, Hero MotoCorp, an Indian motorcycle and scooter manufacturer. For an hour, Woods posed for photographs on and beside motorcycles and alongside Hero chief executive Pawan Munjal and granted interviews to print and television reporters from India.

He poked fun at his age, stroking his gray-speckled goatee and joking that he was taking hair from his top and putting it on his chin. Like Rip Van Winkle, Woods sounded as if he had only recently awakened from a long slumber when he spoke repeatedly of the bold, futuristic world of technology that he, the child of Persimmon Woods, is learning to navigate.

Major victories

“I’m still evolving,” said Woods, who is using his Nike irons, the Scotty Cameron putter that was in his bag during 13 of his 14 Major victories and a Bridgestone ball.

His practice partners on Monday included retired Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, whose first full season in the major leagues was 1996. That was the same year that a 20-year-old Woods turned pro and an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut. Of the three, Woods is the only one still competing.

“To see those guys, in those various sports, if you lose a little bit, you’re going to probably be replaced,” Woods said. “But in golf, I can play a different way and get away with it.”

He cited Jim Furyk (46) who shot a 58 in August. “So it’s possible,” Woods said. “I’m just going to have to find different ways of doing it.”

Standing in Woods’s way is a new guard that has filled the vacuum at the top created by his absence. Led by Jordan Spieth, there are six players in this week’s field in their 20s. Since Woods’s last competitive appearance, the six have combined for 14 worldwide victories, with Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama winning their most recent starts.

Woods said his goal this week was the same as it ever was: to win. But given where he was a year ago, it probably could be argued that Woods has pulled off a victory just making it to his starting time.

“Would I like to play a full schedule every year for the next decade-plus?” Woods said. “Yeah, that would be great. Can I? I don’t know. We’ll see.”

New York Times Service

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