It’s the third time that Tiger Woods has used the Hero World Challenge—an event that he hosts—as his comeback vehicle. And just like the last time in 2016, there’s been some snickering in the media about the ‘soft comeback’—the tournament is a limited-field event—that his detractors say protects Woods from the exposure that he would face in a regular full-field PGA Tour event. That’s a debate that we won’t get into: suffice to say that the ‘limited field’ has eight of the world’s top 10 players, as well as winners of 22 major championships. Draw your own conclusions.
What hasn’t got as much play is the fact that Woods—known to be fiercely loyal to sponsors who’ve stuck with him through his travails since he dropped off the world stage—has once again chosen the Hero Motors’ sponsored event for his much anticipated return to competitive golf, thereby delivering significant RoI to the Indian two-wheeler manufacturer. There’s no arguing with that strategy: in 2016, the first round of this event garnered the biggest television viewership of the year for any golf event except the British Open. Again, this year, and if Thursday’s viewership figures are any indication then the event is all set to be the most viewed golf event of the year. So much for the demise of Tiger mania—never before in the history of the game has a player who’s now languishing outside the top 1,000 generated this sort of interest. But then Woods is hardly any other player.
At the time this column is being written, the second day’s play is about to get underway and TW’s legion of fans (your columnist included) think there’s enough evidence to rejoice. But before diving into an entirely premature celebration it might be prudent to remind ourselves of some sobering facts. TW has returned to competitive golf after 301 days; he’s 41 years old—far from the player we remember at 31. In 2015—the last time he competed at major championships against a full field on difficult courses—he missed the cut three times; he’s had four back surgeries, not to mention the procedures on his knee and Achilles tendon. And the most damning of all: at the same event in 2016, TW looked great and when he shot a stunning seven-under 65 in the third round, even his biggest sceptics had a change of heart. Unfortunately, that comeback was short, lasting just three rounds in 2017: at an event in Dubai in February, TW had to withdraw after his back gave out on him.
So, is it too early to say if the greatest golfer of our era is back? Absolutely. But the indications that he may be have never been stronger. Two sub-par rounds, if you include the pro-am, and a competitive three-under on Thursday are encouraging stats in themselves. But it’s much more than just numbers: TW is swinging with a fluidity that’s been lacking in previous years. He’s also hitting it long—averaging over 300 yards—which is telling not in terms of the distance he’s hitting, but rather that he’s feeling confident enough of his back to swing at full tilt.
Playing with this year’s most successful player—Justin Thomas—on Thursday, TW consistently outdrove one of the longest players on tour, and even had the temerity to tweet that “JT thinks he’s longer than me! LOL” (sic). It wasn’t just the drives either, TW putted like the man we remember who could will the ball into the hole, and when he did—like the 18-foot par save on the fourth hole on Thursday—TW followed it up with that iconic fist pump that we’ve missed so much. Even purists who used to scoff at TW’s on-course swearing, couldn’t help but grin when the 14-time major champion let loose with a string of cuss words. He’s been missed, Tiger Woods has.
What’s strikingly different is TW’s attitude this time around. Unlike last year when he’d typically remarked to scribes on the eve of this tournament that he “…was here to win,” this year he’s seemed, as unbelievable as it sounds—almost humble. “I hate to be so mundane on this one, but honestly…I don’t know where I’m at,” Woods said. “What I mean by that is I don’t know how hard I can hit it, what shots can I play. I missed being able to play golf with my friends. Just go out and play a casual 18 holes. I had not done that in close to two years as my back was hurting so much. Now it is fantastic to come back and play with my friends, I call them kids actually. They have been great at trying to help me come back. I have gotten really close to them and now I want to see how I compete against all these guys,” Woods told the media on the eve of the first day’s play.
The impression he gave was that this year, all he’s hoping for is four rounds of pain-free golf. He’s “still learning this body.” And while the stats might seem stacked against him, let’s not forget that TW won PGA Tour’s ‘Player of the Year’ just four years back when he hoisted five trophies. First round apart, TW has his work cut out for him at the $3.5-million event. The limited but outstanding field is led by Dustin Johnson, who has held the number one spot since February 2017, and includes three of the year’s major championship winners—US Open-winner Brooks Koepka, The Open Championship-winner Jordan Spieth and PGA Championship-winner Justin Thomas, who also won the PGA TOUR’s 2017 FedEx Cup title and the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year.
World number five Hideki Matsuyama is the defending champion, who will be hoping to retain the title against the likes of European Tour’s Race to Dubai-winner Tommy Fleetwood and the ever-lurking Justin Rose. It’s no small measure of the depth of this field that players like Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar and Kevin Kisner, all of whom won on the PGA Tour in 2017, have to be mentioned at the very end of this line-up.
As one of TW’s legion of diehard fans your columnist is not counting on him winning a major. Even if he wins on the PGA Tour then that would be his 80th career victory—just two short of Sam Snead’s all-time record. And if he did, then that would be possibly the biggest red-letter day that golf has seen in a long long time—even more earth-shaking than Jack Nicklaus’ win at the Augusta Masters in 1986. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.