Up close, Tiger Woods’ first round back answered plenty of questions

Tiger Woods walks near his golf bag during 2021 PNC Championship Pro-Am

Tiger Woods teed it up in Orlando on Friday.

Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods stood on the 9th tee, peered at a bunker and felt the wind.

“How far to cover that, Joey?”

Two-hundred sixty yards, his caddie told him. Into the wind, with this edition of his body, at this stage of his recovery? That was asking a lot. Woods stood behind the ball, sizing up the shot. He stepped to it. And then he hit a weak drop-kick that skittered off the toe, way right, and flew towards immediate trouble.

Charlie Woods, Tiger’s 12-year-old son, piped up.

“Nice shot.”

Tiger stopped. He glared. Then he grinned. He tossed a broken tee in his son’s direction, the way fathers have done to impudent sons since the golf tee’s invention.

That was the day in a nutshell: Woods returning to golf in the public eye, testing his limits, enjoying the company of his son. In person it was a slow day, a five-and-a-half hour PNC Pro-Am round at the Ritz-Carlton. A modest crowd followed Team Woods throughout the day, baking in the 86-degree Orlando sun. And in the process, he answered a number of burning questions that, until now, had been left to pure speculation.

Let’s answer nine of ’em.

1. How’s he walking?

Hmm. Okay? Not very well? Four out of 10? Woods had a noticeable limp when he arrived on site just before 8 a.m. He eased his way through a warm-up, building speed gradually. And he took a golf cart for all 18 holes, walking just short distances from the cart to his ball each time.

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Woods does not deny that his walking is a limitation. If anything, he’s hyper-aware. Friday made it clear that walking is likely the single factor that will delay Woods’ return to competitive golf.

“I couldn’t walk this golf course even right now, and it’s flat,” he said. “I don’t have the endurance. “My leg is not quite right yet and it’s going to take time.”

2. What’s his speed like?

It’s hardly Bryson-esque, but Woods is swinging it plenty fast. Is he hitting the ball as hard as he wants? No. As hard as he used to? Also no. Especially warming up, he (understandably) seemed to have a hard time loading onto his right leg, which limited him slightly.

But he’s also swinging much faster than he’d like you to believe. Asked last week for current ball speed numberes, Woods slyly told Golf Digest that his son was hitting it past him. On Friday that was demonstrably untrue. Instead, Woods seems to be about a club shorter than he’s used to with his irons — and some equivalent distance behind with driver. Still, he hit at least one tee shot 300 yards down the middle.

“I just don’t have the speed, you know?” Woods said. “It is what it is. The ball doesn’t fly as far. I can’t generate the speed I used to and, you know, the body is not what it used to be.”

3. How’s his short game?

Tight. Really good. Woods may not have the consistency around the green quite yet, but like he said in the Bahamas, he certainly hasn’t lost his feels. He hit several pitches to kick-in distance, setting up his scramble partners for easy tap-ins. He was even more artful practicing wedges around the greens, sticking tees in the ground where the hole locations were for last year’s tournament and hitting shots to those markers with a variety of trajectory and spin.

But that didn’t mean he was perfect. On 18, with a half-wedge left for eagle, Charlie hit a spinner that came to a stop some six feet past the hole. His father dumped one in the front bunker. He laughed — though possibly through gritted teeth.

4. How’s his endurance?

We’ve covered how he felt walking. But Woods looked fatigued as the day progressed. It’s a long round in the heat, after all. He admitted he has only played a couple 18-hole rounds up to this point, and midway through the back nine he mostly shut down his full-swing practice. He barely hit driver after the turn and mostly chipped and putted on the way home.

“I wasn’t going to play much on the back nine anyways,” he explained. “Just like last year, I tried to save myself for the weekend — plus most of the tee shots are going to be hit by Charlie on the back nine.”

5. Would he ever use a cart?

Woods, as he said on Friday, is happy his right leg is still attached. Given the scope of his injuries, some people wondered if he would consider applying for a special medial exemption where he would be allowed to compete on the PGA Tour using a golf cart.

He shut the idea down pretty quickly.

“No. I wouldn’t, no. No. Absolutely not. Not for a PGA Tour event, no. That’s just not who I am. That’s not how I’ve always been, and if I can’t play at that level, I can’t play at that level.”

6. What’s the deal with his gear?

Woods has a new Bridgestone ball in play this week. He also unveiled the TaylorMade Stealth, a brand-new driver notable for its red face. Woods sang its praises after the round.

“It’s given me the ability to hit balls and hit cuts,” he said. “I didn’t like having just only one shot. The driver setup that we have for Augusta allowed me to draw the golf ball. But when I hit the cut, it was really short. I don’t have that difference anymore. [The draws and cuts] are very similar, which is huge.

“And hey, got to love the colors.”

7. Is he surprised he was able to rally for this event?

If you want some inspiration for your own life, give this quote a read; it was Woods’ most intense answer of the day:

“Yes and no,” he said. “If you would have asked me after those three months in bed if I would be here, I would have given you a different answer.

“But there are no days off. We worked every day. Even days where I didn’t feel very good, we still worked on something. So every day, there was never a day off the entire — after those three months in bed, I haven’t taken a day off.”

Let’s replay the middle bit of that. “Even days where I didn’t feel very good, we still worked on something.” I’ll tuck that away.

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8. What does his caddie think?

Seeing him back in action on Friday I couldn’t help but think that Joe LaCava is the absolute perfect man for his job. He’s unimpressed with Woods’ celebrity, unimpressed with his own notoriety, happy to be here, no-nonsense, never one to waste a word.

After Woods’ February car crash, LaCava came to visit twice: once in April and again in July. Given the extent of Woods’ injuries, his caddie said he was thrilled with his pro’s progress.

“I’m not a doctor, but I was surprised that he was playing this week,” he said. “I’m surprised at his clubhead speed, he’s hitting it pretty crisp, his short game looks decent. I don’t ever want to use the word ‘shocked’ with this guy, but am I pleasantly surprised where he’s at? Definitely.”

Still, LaCava is a realist. He sees a long road ahead.

“Seeing what I’ve seen today for 14, 15 holes gives me a little light at the end of the tunnel. But the guy’s not going to show up and half-ass it. So you’ve got practice time at home, time at the range, standing on the range, walking 72, maybe 90 holes because you want to play some sort of practice round. It’s going to require a lot of physical effort on his part to get around the golf course. But I like what I see otherwise.”

9. When is he coming back?

Ah, yes. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Friday’s round was fun, the PNC Pro-Am is all well and good and the PNC Championship will be even better. But nobody will mistake this week for a PGA Tour event — not in prestige nor in strain.

Woods certainly knows that. He reiterated the conservative expectations he has been floating for weeks.

“Being able to play tournament golf and being able to recover, practice and train and hit balls after a round and do all of the things that I need to be at a high level, I’m a long way away from that,” he said.

Asked more directly about his plans for 2022, he stuck to the same line.

“That’s a good question. I still have a long way to go in this rehab process. As I said, I don’t have the endurance to be out here to play at the Tour level.”

Still, he gave room for hope, too. After all, we know there’s something driving Woods beyond the thought of taking down a two-day family scramble.

“Obviously [I’ve] been a little banged up this year, but slowly but surely I’ll get to where the speed will start coming back up,” he said. “And I can start hitting the shots that I know that I see that just aren’t quite coming off.”

Then he hit the range. It was time to hit a few more balls, to watch Charlie, to yuk it up with Lee Trevino. Woods was limping but he was laughing, too.

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