Caution: Tiger Woods’ return just quick snapshot in bigger picture

Tiger Woods is ready for the Hero World Challenge. Getty Images

Caution: Tiger Woods’ return just quick snapshot in bigger picture

PGA Tour

Caution: Tiger Woods’ return just quick snapshot in bigger picture

Just called up the forecast at this week’s Hero World Challenge: Mostly sunny skies and steady Bahama island breezes of 10-12 mph, with a front moving in early Thursday consisting of high expectations and over-the-top magnification.

That’s when Tiger Woods will stand on the tee at Albany and strike his first shot. It will be the first time Woods has hit a golf ball in competition in 10 months, since departing Dubai citing back spasms the day after an opening, no-birdie 77.

When that first drive connects at Albany, please alert the folks at the Institute of Seismic Readings. Golf greatness will have punched its time clock again.

Woods has played 1,179 rounds on the PGA Tour, and health willing, he will play four more this week as the tournament host at the Hero. This week’s play won’t add to that 1,179 in any official capacity, but unofficially, four days undoubtedly will generate layers of assessment beneath the giant microscope, prompting detailed swing breakdown and endless pontification about the Great One’s future. (Please circle “A” for great again, or “B” if he’s ready for a full-time career in architecture.)

The reality: It’s four rounds, people. Let’s tug those reins a bit, shall we?

How will Tiger’s play at Albany set the table for 2018? Well, fingers crossed, golf hopes for the best. Last year at Hero, he looked athletic, swung freely, showed decent speed in his swing, led the field in birdies (24) and seemed poised to be some sort of factor in 2017. We guzzled the Kool-Aid and buckled up. Why not? And then Woods played three rounds in 2017.

Three. Rounds. Stunning.

A healthy Tiger would be the tide to rise all yachts in the Tour’s harbor. Think about it: You have a growing roster of studs in their 20s stepping up (three of whom won majors in 2016-17), and plenty of veteran players hungry and savvy enough to try to keep up. You have 23-year-old Jon Rahm starting to think about World No. 1 at the same time 47-year-old Phil Mickelson is trying to make a 23rd consecutive U.S. cup team.

You think Justin Thomas’ season was great? He won five times. Stellar. Woods won five or more times in 10 different seasons.

So where does Tiger fit in? Right now, he’s the “plus-one” on a wedding invite. We’ve learned that we can get by without him, as golf has managed to do since his five-victory season in 2013. It’s not the ideal plan, but kudos to the young guys, it is a viable option. If Woods could somehow get consistently healthy, stay pain-free, and play frequently enough to build some sort of rhythm and normalcy, he’d be an exciting addition. Nobody moves the needle as he does.

But that guy we watched shuffle through the sand in Dubai in February? We don’t need to see that, nor does he. Woods, who turns 42 on Dec. 30, isn’t a guy who will hang around and enjoy tying for 28th. He’s too proud and too loyal to that champion who showed up every week to win, doing so 79 times on the PGA Tour, just three shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record.

After four procedures on his back, is Tiger beyond the excruciating pain that prevented him from competing? Are his chipping issues behind him? Can he make clutch 15-footers again? It’s a tall order. Most likely, he’ll be day by day, round by round. Sure, it would be great if the famed stinger is back, but we need more than a single image.

Golf doesn’t lie. An aging shortstop who loses range still can trot on the diamond and make it look good, as if he hasn’t lost a step, and maybe muster a couple of singles off the fists. In golf, there is one judge and jury at the end of one’s day: the number that a golfer scratches onto his scorecard. In his prime Woods could spray the ball all over and still shoot 68. Now, he may go out and hit lots of good shots and shoot 74. The numbers are the numbers.

Whatever he does, and however big it leans one way or another through four days (hopefully) in the Bahamas, remember to tug on those reins a little. However his game appears on the surface, just like that single stinger, we’re getting a very small sample size. It should not be graded as high, or as low, as we’ll want to grade it. Give it time. Let it marinate.

And for starters, be thankful that Tiger is back.

(Note: This story appears in the Nov. 27, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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