'Thankful' Tiger Woods takes big step in return at Hero World Challenge

NASSAU, BAHAMAS - NOVEMBER 30: Tiger Woods of the United States plays his shot from the sixth tee during the first round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas on November 30, 2017 in Nassau, Bahamas. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

'Thankful' Tiger Woods takes big step in return at Hero World Challenge

PGA Tour

'Thankful' Tiger Woods takes big step in return at Hero World Challenge

NASSAU, Bahamas – Tiger Woods stood over an 8-footer to save par on his final hole in his long-awaited comeback round on Thursday at the Hero World Challenge, and he never did see the majestic double rainbow that seemed to stretch across the entire island behind him.

Typical Tiger. Some parts of his game may be rusty. His penchant for grinding is not among them.

Woods made the putt to shoot 3-under 69 at Albany Golf Club, the same score shot by the fellow competitor with whom he played, 2016-17 PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas. Woods’ round could have been better for sure – he played four of Albany’s five par 5s rather sloppily, finishing 1 over on the fives for the day – but a perfect round was never the goal. After 10 months off and having undergone a fourth back surgery in April, this one a vertebrae fusion in his lower back, the man many consider the most talented to ever play this game just wanted to see progress. And he did. We all did.

Woods stands three shots behind leader Tommy Fleetwood (66) after one round, tied for eighth with three others. He beat seven players in the world-class field. It was a good start.

Asked to describe his day in a word, Woods bartered for three: Up and down. But later, a more meaningful word rose from a star who at times in his career has been quite insular: Thankful.

“I was in my head thanking all the people who have helped me in giving me a chance to come back and play this round again,” Woods said. “There were a lot of people that were instrumental in my life: friends, outside people I’ve never met before, obviously my surgeon. So there have been a lot of people. I was very thankful. I make sure in my head I try to thank every one of them.”

Woods, 41, who had played only three competitive rounds in all of 2017, made five birdies against a pair of bogeys. There were some impressive highlights, like the 2-iron he whistled from 265 yards into the par-5 second hole, or the sawed-off pitching wedge from 95 yards at 14 that danced around the hole before stopping 18 inches away. Birdie.

There were a couple of loose, hang-on driver swings on 15 (bogey) and 16, two horrid chips, and some quality putts to keep momentum, the first from 18 feet at the par-4 fourth to save par and deliver his first fist pump of the day.

Around the golf course, the other players were curious to see what Woods was doing. Matt Kuchar, who shot 5-under 67, said he was looking for scoreboards just about anywhere. “Absolutely,” Kuchar said. “We wanted the Tiger Woods update. On every hole, we were trying to find an update. We were asking the microphone guys.”

Woods saluted many of the players in this field who have been instrumental in helping him to climb back into the competitive arena. It truly has been a team effort. When home in Jupiter, Fla., Woods says he’ll get calls and texts to show up to The Medalist and play some money games, competing against the likes of Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Daniel Berger. The players all like to needle one another, and the playful, pointed barbs and banter is the type of stuff Woods missed most when he needed help for months just getting out of bed because he was in such excruciating pain.

Would he even play again? That was his intention, but Woods wasn’t really sure. His latest surgery in April was more about quality of life and spending pain-free time with his two children than it was about hitting golf balls on a global stage again.

That’s why there was joy in him on Thursday, as well as some fire, too – a club slam here, a sharp expletive there. He has won 79 times on the PGA Tour and though he came into his week at the Hero, a tournament he and his dad created 19 years ago, talking about tempering expectations, he didn’t do much tempering.

Consider this exchange after Woods lamented messing up two par 5s (Nos. 9 and 15), which he said probably kept him from leading.

Reporter: You speak as if you believe you can win this tournament. Do you think that?

Woods: Yes.

Reporter: Did you believe that when you stepped to the first tee today?

Woods: Yes.

Reporter: Is that an endorsement where you’re at?

Woods: Yes.

Woods smiled, and hearty laughter broke out around him. But winning, to Woods, never has been a joking matter. He made a living doing it, and trampling his opponents. This time, getting ready for the Hero, unlike 12 months ago, he could practice and play without pain. At one point, he played nine straight days, sometimes going 36 holes in a cart.

On Thursday, the speed in his swing had returned, and he didn’t back down from smashing the driver. Outside of tentative swings at 15 (into a bush, which led to an unplayable lie) and 16 (right waste area), there was little tentativeness in his action. On a couple of holes, he drove the ball some 25-30 yards past Thomas, who is a long knocker himself.

Woods hit seven of 13 fairways, 12 of 18 greens in regulation, and needed 28 putts. And he shot 69, which was a solid score in windy conditions. Nonetheless, this one transcended the numbers, not only for Woods, but for others, too.

Tiger Woods was back. Where does he want to be at week’s end?

“Well, just keep progressing,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is keep plodding along.”

Thomas wasn’t surprised in the least to see Woods playing well, nor was Fowler surprised at Woods’ effort. Come Sunday, when four or five players might be in the mix on the back nine, Fowler was asked if he’d be surprised if Woods were among them.

“I’ve played four or five rounds of golf with him (at home),” Fowler said, “and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Look at his mental game – he’s one of the best, if not THE best, ever. The biggest thing for him is dialing in what he has.”

On Thursday, Woods had plenty. Tiger Woods was back, playing golf again, and he was thankful. He wasn’t alone. Rainbows all around.

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