In a dreamy beachside setting, the Tiger Woods comeback gets its first dose of reality

December 2, 2017

NASSAU, Bahamas — If one was good and two was better, what would three great rounds feel like?

After a shaky third-round 75 for Tiger Woods at the Hero World Challenge, we’ll have to wait at least until Sunday to find out.

Call it a reality check in this surreal beachside setting, where very little has felt real this week. The tournament isn’t typical, with only 18 players competing on a tropical island in front of just a few hundred spectators. The tee times have all come between 11 a.m. and 1:15 p.m, so there have been no crack-of-dawn starts (except for jet-lagged Tommy Fleetwood) or hanging around waiting to peg it late in the afternoon.

During Tuesday’s practice round, Woods himself was unusually open and jovial: he was walking, joking and cussing with reporters. Wednesday’s pro-am was ultra-casual, with maybe two-dozen fans following along. Good shots drew sparse applause, if any at all. Torrey Pines, Riv and Bay Hill were worlds away.

Then, on Thursday, Woods went out in 34. It was surprising, to be sure, but not nearly as unexpected as what occurred on the 11th hole. As Woods tracked his second shot through the air, two fans approached him. They had moved inside the ropes and were now well into the fairway, camera phones in hand. Only when they got within 25 feet of Woods did security escort them back outside the ropes. There’s been a lot of that this week — fans wandering wherever they please — enough that one marshal said of the boundary-pushing gallery, “They’re all f—ing idiots.”

Even Woods himself has been different, more amiable and accessible, with fans taken aback when the normally steely golfer responds to their “good shot!” with “thank you.” It has happened many times this week, reminding observers of this new Tiger World in which we now live. As Woods told reporters today, there was a betting “line” on him simply finishing four rounds this week. “Times have changed a bit,” he said.

After Woods’s opening rounds of 69 and 68, another surprise came Saturday when his game regressed, making just two birdies against five bogeys and hitting only nine greens in regulation. It was a dose of reality for a man playing his first tournament rounds since early February.

“That’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Woods said. “I’m not the only one who’s struggling at times out here.”

Woods was always going to have a worst round in the Bahamas. Play 72 holes and you’re almost certain to encounter bogeys. On Saturday, Tiger’s worst-round-yet beat world No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s mark of 76. Many others stumbled, too, on the windiest day of the week. When Woods eventually tapped in for 75, he was only a hair over two strokes off the field average for the day.

When Woods made the turn in 40, he knew it wasn’t his day. Yet what followed was perhaps the best he has played the Albany back nine since his second-round 65 last year.

When he finally made his first birdie of the day, on the 14th hole, Woods retrieved his ball from the cup, turned to the crowd, walked a few paces and lifted his hat. He smiled and took a bow.

In that moment, it was worth remembering the social media videos Woods has posted over the last two months. The slow-motion swings, the sensational stinger — this whole process has been a bit like watching someone relearn how to walk on a balance beam. Except now Woods can’t handpick the swings he wants the world to see. Over 72 holes, each and every one is broadcasted: the good, the bad and the yippy. 

“There’s so much more at stake,” Wood said. “If you go out there at home and make nine birdies and five bogeys, who cares, but it matters out here.”

A little bit this week, a whole lot more come January.

And a whole lot more still come the first week of April.