NASSAU, Bahamas – Before you get through the gates leading into the tony Albany community, drive past the sparkling marina filled with millionaires’ yachts, and before the winding pathway to the upscale Albany Golf Club, one first must traverse a hardscrabble, weather-beaten, skinny Bahamian road that was here before this paradise ever rose.
Along that road, there is a small, hand-painted sign nailed high into a small palm tree. It reads, simply enough, “Have Faith.” That, more than anything, encapsulated this latest comeback of Tiger Woods, the golfing cat with nine lives. On the other side of his fourth back surgery, and bearing down on his 42nd birthday, Woods turned up to play at the Hero World Challenge after 301 days off not really knowing how he’d perform with a scorecard in his pocket. He wondered what the rest of us do: How much sand still is left in his glass?
In some ways, this was complete déjà vu. Woods has shown up to his own year-end Hero party on three occasions after injuries and long layoffs. Last December, he said he felt healthy, tied the tournament lead in birdies (24), and was amped for a new golf season. The golf choir rejoiced in unison.
Then he played three rounds and was done.
In April, Woods had a vertebrae fusion in his lower back, and outside of a vice-captain cameo at the Presidents Cup, he was out of sight as the Tour’s twentysomethings took charge.
This time around? It has been requested that expectations for Woods be tempered, but good luck with that. He’s a 79-time winner and 14-time major champion. Given all his health setbacks, is Woods now, dare anyone think it, an underdog?
Underdog? ‘He’s Tiger Woods.’
“No,” said Patrick Reed sharply. “Never. He’s Tiger Woods.”
Reed got an up-close epiphany playing nine holes with Woods three days before the tournament. At the par-5 ninth hole, Woods lambasted a drive (ITAL)80 yards(UNITAL) past Reed, who averaged 296.5 yards in driving distance last season. (We get it; it was one shot.) But Reed failed to reach in two after he “roasted” a 5-wood; Woods had a “chip 5-iron” from 215 yards. Woods, feeling healthy again, with 180-mph ball speed and ample length?
“It’s a game-changer,” said Reed.
Bottom line, the man many consider golf’s GOAT, with the exception of a nine-hole patch on Saturday in rugged, windy conditions (4 over on his first nine), appeared to be in some high-quality form.
Woods drove it long and mostly straight (three bad foul balls in four days) and putted well. His chipping, at times, was suspect, but frankly, the combination of spotty greenside lies and sticky Bermuda made scrambling difficult for everyone.
Best of all, though, Woods was smiling, social, and outwardly joyful. How much did he miss the action? Enough even to enjoy his struggle in a third-round 75. Being 5 over par through 10 holes made him fight, and he missed that. He used a word we haven’t heard him use: Thankful. He showed a lot in his game, perhaps most surprisingly, that coiled-up speed and power.
“The issue,” said Woods, dressed in Sunday red, after finishing bogey-bogey to shoot 68, leaving him at 8-under 280, “was how was my scoring going to be, how was my feel, how am I going to get used to the adrenaline in my system for the first time in a while. You know, that took a little bit of time.”
The youngsters in the field got a taste of life on Tour with Woods in it. He casts a tall shadow. Justin Thomas won five times in 2016-17, captured his first major and was PGA Tour Player of the Year. “And all I get asked about,” he said, laughing, “is Tiger Woods.”
It was the same for everyone, even Rickie Fowler, whose champion’s post-round session became a barrage of Tiger inquiries. Fowler and a few others had been playing games with Woods at The Medalist back home in Florida, and knew his arsenal was steadily returning. Fowler shot 65 in the wind against Woods one day, and tied.
This won’t be the last of Tiger
Trying to imagine a golf recipe where all these young kids keep playing great and Tiger Woods suddenly is healthy, able to sustain a steady schedule, and is inserted into the mix?
“I wanted to make sure I got out in front of him,” Fowler said standing next to Woods at his trophy ceremony, “because I know this isn’t the last we’ll see of him.”
Woods maintains a close circle, and those around him have taken notice of the joy he exudes in finally being healthy again. Even when he won five times in 2013, his last big season, Woods was experiencing shooting pains down his leg. Can he win again? Most say yes. We’ll likely see him next at the Farmers. Oh, wait, weren’t we going to temper those expectations?
“We went through this last year, so let’s not get ahead of the game,” cautions caddie Joe LaCava. “But obviously, based on what we saw, you’ve got to be optimistic, right? It would be great if everybody dialed it down a notch. But that’s not going to happen, is it?”
Woods’ old Stanford teammate and longtime friend, Notah Begay, is very bullish on his pal’s future.
“I’d never bet against this guy,” Begay said. “I think his mind is set on competing at the highest level. If he’s got the physical capability, he’s going to win again.
Maybe that sign heading into Albany was a message for all: Have Faith.
(Note: This story appears in the December 2017 issue of Golfweek.)