It’s not hard to sense the anticipation in and around Tiger Woods’ team these days.
It was apparent as soon as he arrived in the Bahamas for the Hero World Challenge, and it remains alive and well today on his 43rd birthday.
“I’m just now getting used to competing again,” Woods said. “So I know what I can do and I know that I can win, so that part of it is exciting.”
Woods finished second-to-last in his final tournament of 2018 at Albany Golf Course. There were a lot of mistakes and big numbers.
It looked a lot like what we saw from Woods early in the year when he had trouble piecing together rounds. And let’s remember that Woods’ best performances often followed his most scrutinized – a T-4 at the Quicken Loans National and T-6 at the British Open after missing the cut at the U.S. Open. A solo second at the PGA Championship after a lackluster performance at Firestone.
Energy conservation biggest concern
What happened in the Bahamas isn’t a good indication of what’s to come.
Woods has spent much of the time since doing equipment testing, getting stronger in the gym and figuring out his 2019 schedule. A lot of sweat equity getting the game where it needs to be. From here, it’s all on the table.
“The possibilities are endless, for sure,” caddie Joe LaCava said. “But at the same time, it’s not just gonna happen because you played well last year. Last year is last year. You’ve gotta move on and still gotta work hard, which, he’s not an idiot. He knows that. He’s going to have to work hard.”
Woods’ biggest concern – and the biggest potential roadblock for sustained success in the coming years – is energy conservation. He said multiple times in the Bahamas that he overdid it last season and played too much golf.
He was completely out of gas by the Ryder Cup, after the Tour Championship win, and he was probably feeling a lot more beat up than he let on at times throughout the year. Looking ahead he’ll be in the gym more and on the course less, and the results should be more consistent as a result.
“Being physically in better shape going into next season is very important,” Woods said. “Being able to handle the condensed schedule and all the big events we play every month. There’s literally a big event every single month, so physically I’ve got to be in better shape than I was last year to be able to handle that.”
We’ve now seen Woods take his first big step in that regard. He was seriously considering playing this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii but eventually decided to skip it, one of three eligible players opting out of Maui. That’ll give him a bit more rest before his likely 2019 debut in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines to begin a bunched-up season.
Woods still looked rusty in his final two events in 2018, first during his loss to Phil Mickelson in “The Match” and later at the Hero World Challenge.
But he was great off the tee for much of the week in the Bahamas, and there are some interesting developments there that bode well for his game. He’s spending time working on taking spin off the ball and is able to hit driver with a lower trajectory if he wants. He’s also hitting more draws off the tee as opposed to the high fade he used throughout the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Ask him about expectations for the future and you won’t get a straight answer. You’ll just get the sense that he has big things in mind.
“There’s a precedent for guys having a lot of success in their 40s and I feel I now have a chance to do something my 40s,” said Woods, citing Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Vijay Singh. “It’s just a matter of doing it. I’ve proven it to myself that I can put myself in position. … To put myself back in the last two major championships with a legitimate chance to win the tournament, you know, that gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”
The future is very bright in that regard, and Woods seems to be soaking it all up. Mostly because for a stretch of several years there was no future. He raised the possibility on multiple occasions that his playing career was over.
Pre-fusion, the future included a lot of roles as tournament ambassador. Maybe a permanent spot in the broadcast chair. Coping with back pain, too.
Now it’s filled with more trips down Amen Corner, more grind-it-out U.S. Opens. More winning.
That much seems like a sure thing considering all he had to overcome in 2018. He didn’t realize it at the time because everything was still so uncertain, but in hindsight he was building a foundation for the years to come.
He’ll continue to strengthen that over the coming weeks, but the hardest part is over and the highest of goals are back in play again.
“I’m sure he’s licking his chops,” LaCava said. “How could he not be?”
(Note: An earlier version of this story appears in the December 2018 issue of Golfweek.)