In the pregame coverage for The Match on Saturday, Justin Thomas said that early in his career it took him a few rounds with Tiger Woods before he gathered the steel to ask Woods what he thought of Thomas’ game. When Thomas finally inquired, Woods didn’t sugarcoat his assessment: “You don’t have near enough shots.”
In the years since that conversation, Thomas has won 15 times on the PGA Tour, including two major championships, established himself as one of the game’s elite shotmakers (did you see him make par Saturday night using only a 5-wood?!) and ascended to such heights that, well, he made the (very) short list to play alongside Woods in this year’s Match.
Indeed, today the more pressing question is not about the state of Thomas’ game but that of Woods’.
The Match represented the first time we’ve seen Woods hit a ball in competition since he missed the cut by nine at the Open Championship in July. Woods was supposed to play the Hero World Challenge two weeks ago in the Bahamas but was sidelined with plantar fasciitis.
Here are 4 things we learned in his much-anticipated return.
1. He still has speed
It took Woods all of one swing to prove that his swing is still loaded with pop. His ball speed with his opening drive, with which he nearly drove the green, was a zippy 178 mph. Earlier in the night, on the range, Woods cranked a tee shot at 182 mph, which caught the attention of Brandel Chamblee, who was watching from home. “What in the holy golden bell did I just see???” Chamblee tweeted.
Each of Woods’ five driver swings in the contest were north of 175 mph. Later in the round, Thomas revealed that when he was hitting with Woods at home in Jupiter Island, Fla., a few weeks ago, Woods “got one to 185.” That’s seriously fast. Most impressive is that he’s doing it with depleted power in his lower body and presumably less ground force than previous iterations of his swing. Woods’ swing today looks armsier than his moves of yesteryear and more reliant upon upper-body strength.
Still, Woods two most exciting swings of the evening came not with a driver but with an iron in his hand. In the Match’s one-club challenge hole — a 450-yard-plus par-4 — Woods’ club of choice was a 5-iron. Instead of playing down the fairway, he opened his body up at a 45-degree angle and played a slinging draw that thrilled fans at home.
With his second shot, Woods executed a similar hard hook. Fun stuff. Woods’ second-best iron shot was his tee shot on the par-3 8th, which he parachuted over the flagstick to 15 feet.
This isn’t to say Woods’ game was particularly sharp, because it wasn’t, and that was surely, in part, because…
2. He hadn’t played in more than 2 weeks
Woods revealed early in the telecast that, before Saturday, he hadn’t hit a ball in two and a half weeks. So, yeah, rust was inevitable. On the par-4 2nd, Woods hit a chunky approach that came up woefully short. “Play hard, partner,” he joked to his teammate, Rory McIlroy. On the next hole, a par-3, he dumped his tee shot short in a bunker.
Even Woods’ putting, on Pelican GC’s wickedly fast greens, was iffy. Woods has made a legendary career of holing putts when he absolutely has needed them. But that wasn’t the case Saturday. One of his best efforts came from behind the 6th green, after Match announcer Brian Anderson bravely joked on the telecast that Woods was getting a stroke on the hole, a barb that Woods and the other players heard through their earpieces.
Woods historically has used any digs at his game as motivational fuel, and as his 20-ish-foot birdie try tracked toward the hole, this looked to be another Tiger Moment (TM). Alas, his ball caught the left edge of the cup and motored past. He and McIlroy still salvaged an unlikely tie on the hole, but that was only because of a generous concession of McIlroy’s putt and missed shortie from Thomas.
3. He looked uncomfortable
Woods, to no surprise, did not look spry. With the players in carts, he avoided having to pace the fairways but was clearly laboring even on his short walks to and across the greens. He did not look like a player fit to handle four rounds on, say, the hilly terrain of Augusta National. “Ranger Rick” is how Woods referred to himself on a podcast earlier in the week, suggesting he can go blow for blow with any player on the range, but on the course, when walking is involved, not so much.
“How’s the foot?” Match analyst Charles Barkley asked Woods as Woods drove his cart up the 1st hole.
“It’s still attached,” Woods joked. “It’s all good.”
Credit to Woods for keeping a sense of humor about his recovery. As he has described the process, it’s been an absolute grind, with the plantar fasciitis adding yet another layer of complications. One of the big questions for 2023: Will Woods get himself back into a position where he can walk 7,200 yards for five or six consecutive days? Saturday night indicated he (once again) has a long road ahead of him.
4. He was in good spirits
And why not? Golf under the lights! Raising money for an important cause (Florida hurricane relief)! High-stakes match play with your buddies! Woods appeared to revel in all of it.
One of the best moments came before the match when Annika Sorenstam introduced her son, Will, to Woods. As Will inched toward Woods, Woods reached out his hand and with a big smile said, “Tiger, good to see you!” — as if the greatest golfer of all time needed to identify himself.
During the Match itself, Woods employed some lighthearted gamesmanship. On the one-club challenge hole, he declined to reveal his club selection to his opponents, even when pressed by TNT reporter Kathryn Tappen. Later in the event, Thomas mischievously swiped Woods’ cart key, but Woods got the last laugh. As Thomas stood over an approach shot, Woods flipped his cart into reverse. As any golfer knows, hitting the reverse switch produces a shrill siren.
And so the night went. A jab here, a prank there — and, ultimately, a 3-and-2 loss for Woods and McIlroy. After the first hole, the golf was never competitive and, in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have expected it to be. Even with the world No. 1 at his side, Woods looked like an out-of-form golfer who stood little chance against the dynamic shotmaking of Thomas and Spieth.
The good news for Woods: He won’t have to wait long to test his game again in another casual but still competitive environment. He and son Charlie are scheduled to play in the PNC Championship next week in South Florida. The golf world, as ever, will be watching.