Tiger Woods optimistic after walking, finishing 72 holes at Hero

Tiger Woods hits a drive at the Hero World Challenge.

Tiger woods finished 18th this week at the Hero World Challenge.

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Tiger Woods famously never signs up for a tournament if he doesn’t feel he can win it.

But whether he wants to admit it or not — and he might as well have Sunday — an 18th-place finish this week at the Hero World Challenge was a win for Tiger Woods.

Woods completed the Hero this week, the 20-man exhibition he hosts in the Bahamas, with an even-par 72 Sunday to hold at level par. However, the more important part is that he completed all 72 holes, something he has done just three times now in the last three years.

This time, it was the first time he had even competed in seven months after he withdrew during the third round of the Masters and subsequently had ankle surgery days later.

“I’m curious just like you guys what this is going to look like,” Woods said of his optimism after Sunday’s final round. “I haven’t done it [competed] in a while, I haven’t done it with my ankle the way it is now and I was excited each and every day to kind of get through it and kind of start piecing rounds together again.”

In Woods’ five previous starts (not including his two starts at the PNC Championship with his son Charlie where he used a cart) since returning from his February 2021 car crash, there were always moments of laboring. His limp would become more pronounced. He would grimace after swings and awkward steps. He would use his golf clubs as canes.

That wasn’t the case this week.

Woods, who might have the most highly scrutinized gait of any person in the world right now, still had a limp throughout the week at Albany, but the pacing of his walk never changed. There was one moment when NBC cameras caught Woods appearing to be in some pain walking out of a bunker on the back nine Sunday, but that was it.

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He reminded reporters each day that just because his surgically-fused ankle doesn’t hurt anymore, doesn’t mean other parts of his soon-to-be-48-year-old body don’t. He has to deal with that before and after each round.

“It takes a long time,” Woods said. “That’s the unfortunate thing about aging and trying to do something that either I’ve worn out my body or trying to keep up with the younger people, it takes a long time pre and post. You spend more time in the treatment room and weight room than you do on a golf course. That’s just part of wanting to hang around as an athlete.”

But keeping his body upright is one thing. Playing golf at an elite level is another, and Woods surprised many this week.

While his 18th-place finish doesn’t jump off the page, finishing in the top half of the elite field in driving does. Woods no longer generates power by pushing of his right foot like he used to, but he was still recording ball speeds in the upper 170s, enough to keep pace with the world’s best.

His trademark surgical iron play and deft short game and putting touch weren’t there. He even admitted his mental game was rusty, but a lot of things took time to come back to him, the 15-time major winner said, especially during his first-round 75.

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“Every day I got faster into the round,” Woods said. “The first day took me a while to get a handle on it, second day was faster, today was right away. And that’s eventually— when I play on a regular basis, that’s normally how it is… To be honest, that first day took me a while.”

He reaffirmed his belief from earlier in the week that he could play one event a month next year. This week was a good litmus test for him, despite the docile walk Albany posed.

“I think that I can get into the rhythm of it,” Woods said. “I think that having a couple of weeks off to recover, a week to build up, there’s no reason why I can’t get into that rhythm. It’s just a matter of getting in better shape basically. I feel like my game’s not that far off, but I need to get in better shape.

“I’ve got some work to do and excited to get back to work.”

He’ll get back to work in two weeks when he competes with Charlie again at the PNC Championship. He’ll have the option to use a cart that weekend, but watching how his game has recovered will be a key indicator of how much he can really play in 2024.

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