Tiger Woods returned to the world of competitive golf on Thursday, playing his first round in 301 days, and our verdict:
TIGER’S BACK, BABY! HE’S GONNA STACK UP GREEN JACKETS AND CLARET JUGS, HE’S GONNA MAKE ALL THESE MILLENNIAL GOLFERS CRY IN THEIR SNAPCHATS, HE’S GONNA-
…all right, hang on, let’s throttle it back a touch. Yes, Woods finished Day 1 at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas with a, dare we say, nice three-under 69, three strokes behind leader Tommy Fleetwood and tied for eighth. Yes, Woods’ performance was four strokes better than his first round last year, and about a billion strokes better than anyone expected from Woods when he was in the midst of surgery recovery and rehab this summer. Yes, Woods’ driver was true, his putter was precise, and his chipping was … well, not horrible. Yes, Woods’ lone serious flaw — a plus-1 total on all the par 5s, holes that Woods used to feast on like they were Thanksgiving leftovers — is a correctable mistake.
But here’s the point where we strongly recommend pumping the brakes on any expectations of major triumph or, hell, even top-10 finishes. Woods finished last year’s Hero World Challenge at 4-under after a miserable four-over Sunday, and that was the last remotely reasonable round he played until Thursday. A missed cut at the Farmers’ Insurance Open in January and a withdrawal from a European Tour event in Dubai in February followed up last year’s version of the Hero World Challenge return, so we’re not going to know what to make of Woods’ return until he’s back for awhile. And at the moment, we don’t know where or when he’ll be playing after Sunday.
“For me, I thought I did great,” Woods said, and that admission in itself — that Woods wasn’t the greatest player out there, all bow down — was something in itself. “I hadn’t played in awhile. After some of the difficulties I’ve been through, to come out here and score like I did, it was nice to be part of a scorecard again.”
Plus, it’s worth noting that even though Woods is playing against the best in the world, he’s not exactly playing on the toughest of courses; only two players in the 18-man field shot over par on Thursday. There was wind, yes, but the fairways were generous and the greens were flatter than an amateur singing the national anthem. There isn’t exactly U.S. Open-level course treachery at Albany Golf Club. Everyone’s there to have a good time, Woods chief among them. There’s pressure, yes, but it’s manageable pressure, a tight rope two feet off the ground.
“I didn’t know what I could do,” he said. “I’ve been playing golf, playing a lot of holes at home, but it’s a little different when you’ve got to tee it up in a tournament. I had a lot of adrenaline going there, I was hitting the ball a little bit longer than I normally do. So I had to dial it back, and those are the internal struggles I haven’t been through in awhile.”
This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon up the side of a mountain, but Woods’ first steps were steady. That’s a good sign by any measure. We’ll know more on Friday, and much more on Sunday evening, but for now, all is right with Woods’ world.
But hey, if you want to start dreaming of a Woods-Spieth-McIlroy showdown next April, we’re not going to stop you. You can do that again, at least.