Tiger Woods is back, sure, but when will he truly be ‘back’?

December 3, 2017

NASSAU, Bahamas — Tiger Woods didn’t win the Hero World Challenge, not even close, but he did blow away your expectations.

Admit it.

We all expected the lows, and most of them came during Saturday’s three-over 75, but the highs? They were majestic, and plentiful. Thursday’s 2-iron into 3, Friday’s 3-wood into 9, Sunday’s drive-and-putt on 7. Three rounds in the 60s — 69, 68, 68 — is nothing to scoff at, even at a course pro golfers are supposed to pick apart. Pro golfers with four back surgeries who have gone 10 months without a competitive start and played sparingly over the last three years aren’t guaranteed anything.

No, Albany is no Oakmont. Woods’s misses mostly found the sandy waste areas, not rough as thick as Tommy Fleetwood’s hair. But since when does every test have to be hard? Plenty more grueling exams lie ahead.

And no matter the course, it was the same for everyone. Woods beat the Tour’s Player of the Year, PGA champion and five-time winner in 2017 (Justin Thomas) by one, the No. 1 player in the world (Dustin Johnson) by eight, the 2016 British Open champion (Henrik Stenson) by nine and the 2017 U.S. Open winner (Brooks Koepka) by 11.

“This is the way I’ve been playing at home, and when I came out here and played I was playing very similar to this,” Woods said. “Not quite hitting it as far, but I had the adrenaline going and overall I’m very pleased.”

Woods shaved four strokes off his Hero score from last year by eliminating the big numbers. Last year he made six double-bogeys; he made just one this week, and it came 64 holes into the tournament. He also had two eagles, or two more than last year.

Part of the reason Woods didn’t make as many mistakes this time around was due to his positioning off the tee. He struck the ball exceptionally well — a walking, fist-pumping, high-functioning advertisement of spinal fusion surgery — and outdrove the long-hitting Thomas several times during their two rounds together. Yet that will only get him so far. His irons and his wedges were rusty at times and his putting was solid, but his short game issues have not disappeared.

Woods made more than a half-dozen chipping miscues this week, including four alone in Saturday’s 75. Hitting driver a mile looks great on TV with the Trackman lasers lighting up the screen, but he won’t truly be “back” until he gets his short-game under control, and reps will help. Because he’s not “back” until he wins again, and that can’t happen with as many chunky chipping miscues as he had this week.

As for what’s next, now we wait. Tiger hasn’t hinted at a schedule yet. His caddie Joe LaCava said he hopes Woods would consider the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines at the end of January, if he’s healthy. Woods on Sunday again said he felt no pain.

Still, this week was yet another reminder that no one moves the needle like Tiger. Tennis star Rafael Nadal was in an entourage of nearly a dozen following Woods on Sunday. Game respect game. Stars attract stars. After Woods eagled 7, he gave Nadal a head nod and a smile on the way to the 8th tee. The tennis great, who had his phone out taking photos of Woods for much of the round, applauded and smiled back. One legend watching another.

So Woods isn’t back. Not yet. He’s playing golf again. But when will he truly be “back,” if ever? Well, he still hasn’t won since the 2013 Bridgestone, but maybe that’s unfair to mention. Four healthy rounds was all most observers hoped for entering this week, but then he went out and opened 69-68, so who knows what expectations are right now?

On Sunday, Woods set the front nine on fire with a 31, but he doubled the 10th and then bogeyed the 17th. He still had a strong round going when his approach on the 18th found the green about 20 feet from the hole.

The crowd around the green chanted “Wel-come back!” as the host walked up the fairway. A birdie would have been the perfect finishing note to the Hero, his return, especially on a hole he double-bogeyed three times last year. Even a par would have been good for a 67, his lowest round of the week.

Woods studied his birdie try from both angles, then rolled it by the cup, leaving him just a couple of feet for par.

He missed again. The ball lipped out hard. The crowd gasped.

The golf course doesn’t care how many majors you have won.

Welcome back.