Tiger Woods' latest return, the start of something real or just another tease?

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Tiger Woods' latest return, the start of something real or just another tease?

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods' latest return, the start of something real or just another tease?

NASSAU, Bahamas – Well, here we go again. Tiger Woods is back in the Bahamas at his own Hero World Challenge, ready to compete with a scorecard in his back pocket once more.

Is he ready? Is this the start of something real? Or is this all just another tease, like a prized marlin in the nearby azure waters that shows itself before it violently snaps the line, producing heartbreak for all.

A month before Woods is to turn 42, he is playing golf again, and the collective world of golf is excited. Most importantly, so is Woods. The joy inside him is apparent. In a sleepy time of the season, something called the PGA Tour’s unofficial “Challenge Season,” what are the expectations laid upon his strapping shoulders, and are they realistic ones at that?

Ah, yes. Therein lies the tricky part …

Woods said he felt good a year ago, when he fought through some natural rust and gave us enough positive signs to let us all get way too far ahead of ourselves. Most left the island with a nice sliver of optimism that the Great One could be, well, at least very good again.

Can he get back to being in the same zip code as the old Tiger Woods, that fierce competitor that ran over his opponents as would a tank? No. Right now, that’s not even a small part of his thought process. Not that he doesn’t daydream a little.

“In an ideal world,” he said, smiling devilishly, “I would like to have them (today’s young stars) feel what some of them had to go against all those years.”

Back to the here and now. Woods is looking at four tournament rounds at Albany, his friendly home course, to see where he stands now that he’s had an L-5, S-1 fusion performed on his troublesome back and feels relatively healthy outside of some natural stiffness.

That’s it. Four days in Albany. And then he’ll have a better idea how to proceed.

“I don’t know where I’m at,” Woods said on Tuesday upon his first official day back to work in 10 months. “What I mean by that is I don’t know how hard I can hit it, what shots can I play.

“It’s supposed to blow this weekend, and if it blows 30 miles an hour, I’m going to have to hit some shots. I’m going to have to lean on a few and take something off of it, hit some shots, some creative ones. I may have to blast a few. I don’t know yet. I don’t know what the future entails in that regard, because I’m still learning this body. Once I get a better understanding, I can give you a better answer.”

The style of play that earned passing marks here a year ago at this tournament appeared to be “slow-mo” to the man swinging the club once he replayed it. (Woods eventually finished 15th among the 17 world-class players who completed 72 holes.) In the midst of competing, he thought he was hitting some sound shots, thought he was scoring decently (he shot 65 in Round 2) … and now that he looks back on it?

“I didn’t have much at all,” said the winner of 79 PGA Tour titles (three shy of Sam Snead’s record), among them 14 major championships. He didn’t realize how bad his back had become, and how much he was flinching into his shots. This time around, and having not truly played meaningful golf since the fall of 2015, does something in his heart tell him this comeback will be different?

“Yeah,” Woods said, “this is very different, because … last year I was still struggling with a little bit of pain.”

Tiger Woods, pictured after he withdrew from the Omega Dubai Desert Classic last February. It’s the last time that Woods has played a competitive tournament. (Getty Images)

His longtime manager, Excel’s Mark Steinberg, thinks about the question for a bit – is this really different – and believes it is.

“I would say it feels different just because of the energy that Tiger is exuding,” said Steinberg, a man who knows Woods as few do. “I think he was probably trying to talk himself into not being in pain last time, whereas now it seems that he generally is not in pain. So that seems different.

“The level of excitement – and I’m too close to it, I might not be the best one (to judge) – but the level of excitement seems ‘more’ this time.”

It does. Perhaps that’s because Woods has auditioned his game in front of some very good players, and most seem generally impressed. Back home in Jupiter, he has jumped into games with several of the game’s top young guns – World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, FedEx Cup champ Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Daniel Berger – and he’s had great fun doing it.

Forget tournament golf. Woods hasn’t been in shape to simply play social golf with his friends, and he’s missed it.

Lest we get too far ahead once again, let us ring the warning bell: The man has played three tournaments in two years, and hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since the summer of 2013 (when he was PGA Tour player of the year).

To his children, he jokes that he’s been the “YouTube Golfer,” as they’ve seen his brilliance only in old, distorted highlight clips, and never in person. So it’s been fun to have his daughter, Sam, now 10, ask how dad hits the ball so prodigiously (she tells him she can’t even see that far), and for Woods’ son, Charlie, 8, to get out and play a few holes alongside.

Woods was pretty convinced that his two kids never really understood the greatness that the rest of us watched, and lived, for two decades. But this summer he took them to Miami to see their soccer hero, Argentine Lionel Messi, and visited with him in the locker room after the game. Later, Woods wanted to know what the experience was like for them.

“Isn’t it neat to meet a living legend?” he asked his kids.

“Yeah,” answered Sam, “we live with one.”

This time around, the legend is content with getting through four days.

Hopefully, it’s a start.

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