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How far is Tiger Woods hitting it? That depends on when you ask

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 18: Tiger Woods plays a shot on the 16th hole during the first round of the PNC Championship at the Ritz Carlton Golf Club Grande Lakes on December 18, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

ORLANDO, Fla. — To hear Tiger Woods tell it, there are two hurdles standing between him and the PGA Tour: endurance and speed.

The endurance will take time. On Saturday, Woods played his first (semi-) competitive round of golf in a year at the PNC Championship. He rode in a cart. He skipped tee shots where he could, thanks to the consistent driving of his partner-slash-son, Charlie. He walked with a limp. He got tired.

“I don’t have endurance. I haven’t played. This is, what, my fourth, fifth round the entire year,” he said. “I don’t have any golf endurance.”

That’s true. Woods doesn’t look comfortable walking long distances. On Friday, he explained that it would be impossible for him to walk a golf course, even one as flat as the Ritz-Carlton. On Saturday, he lamented the fact that he couldn’t walk alongside his son, but he drove beside him instead. The next best thing.

“It’s totally different than walking step-by-step,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s a reality that we just can’t experience this year.”

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He has talked obsessively about speed. A few weeks ago in the Bahamas, he said he had no speed. He told Golf Digest that Charlie’s ball speed was higher. On Friday, he reiterated the same:

“I just don’t have the speed, you know. It is what it is. The ball doesn’t fly as far.”

On one level, he’s right. There’s no mistaking Woods’ current output for that of his teens, or 20s, or 30s. But there were signs on Saturday that he may have more in the tank than he’s letting on.

Example No. 1:

Playing partner Justin Thomas was determined not to get outdriven by Woods all day. On No. 6, he said he’d “rather hit it out of play” than hit it shorter than Woods. But then Woods clocked his tee shot on No. 11.

“He hit it pretty good, and both of us, as soon as this ball took that big bounce, we looked at each other and I was like, ‘Oh, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be this one because I think it just launched,'” said Thomas. “And yeah, that was a shot to the ego.”

Example No. 2:

NBC measured Woods’ tee shot at No. 5 at 171 mph ball speed. For context, that measures up quite respectably; last season, the Tour average was 170.44 mph. For context, Bryson DeChambeau averaged 190.7. Jon Rahm averaged 178.5. Collin Morikawa averaged 168.6. He’s in the neighborhood.

It’s just one number and should be treated with caution. That’s why we have other examples, too.

Example No. 3:

For our third example, we have three examples provided by Woods himself, who said he hit three balls “exactly how I wanted to. My old numbers.” The first came on his second shot at the par-5 third, where his approach went right over the flagstick.

“It was a 220-yard 4-iron which I hit probably eight feet behind the hole,” he said.

The next, which he described as “a good one at 14,” was in fact a sizzled fairway wood that found the front edge of the green on the par-5. The third shot came at the penultimate hole, a par-3 over water that played some 175 yards into a light breeze. Woods mulled 6-iron but then switched to 7, pured it on a perfect line and flew the green, settling on the back fringe. NBC registered that ball speed at 131, well above average for a 7-iron.

“I smoked a 7-iron at 17,” he said. “I didn’t believe I could get it there, but it was one of my old shots, so to be able to turn that thing down and hit that thing and squeeze it out there like that — that was nice, even though it wasn’t pin-high, but just the shot, the feel and the shape is what I was seeing.”

Now it’s time we admit testimony into the public record, first that of Thomas.

“Man, I was so impressed by the speed that he had and the shots he was hitting,” he said. “At least from my perspective, it looked like a lot of the moves and everything were there.”

During a delay on the 14th tee box, Woods and Thomas started talking speed. Specifically they were talking about how Woods, under his body’s new limitations, could add additional yardage.

I asked Thomas about the exchange after the round.

“He was asking because [I have] a shot that I’ve kind of added to get a little bit farther, and he was just curious because of how he moves now, it’s just harder for him,” Thomas said. “He was asking how I would do it, and then we were talking about [World Long Drive Champion] Kyle Berkshire a little bit because he does it really well and we watch videos of him and how he moves, and it’s just unbelievably impressive. That’s all it was.”

Finally, I’ll add my own testimony. On Woods’ best swings, he looked speedy. From inside 150 yards, it would have been hard to tell Woods had added any surgeries to his resume this year. But there were plenty of clunkers, too, where he’d catch some extra turf with his driver and miss short and right. He talked of struggling to “find the bottom” of his swing. That’s understandable. Endurance requires reps. Reps require endurance. Speed requires both.

But if there’s anything we’ve learned from two days of Woods at the PNC Championship, it’s that there’s plenty of hope for both endurance and for speed. He’s a long way away, but he’s taken the toughest step: the first one.

“If I want to compete out here at the Tour level I’m going to have to get the endurance back and hit thousands upon thousands of golf balls. It just takes time,” he said.

Sounds like a guy who’s ready to make that time.

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