Woods returns to competition at Hero World Challenge

Seventeen of the world’s best golfers will be among the field this week at the PGA Tour’s 19th Annual Hero World Challenge in New Providence, The Bahamas.

All the talk around the golf world, however, has been about the 18th member of the roster of players for this tournament, one Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, arguably the greatest golfer of all time.

Woods is the host of this select $3.5 million event but that’s not what’s been causing all the ruckus. What’s got folks excited is that Woods will play in the tournament, marking his first official competition on Tour since a missed cut last January in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open.

The fact that Woods is back and playing without pain is huge in the golf world. Nothing moves the interest meter for the sport more than when Woods plays. How he fares when the tournament tees off for 72 holes of competition beginning Thursday at the 7,309-yard Albany course is not really as important as the fact that he’s actually playing and competing.

Do people really expect Woods to contend for the $1 million that goes to the winner here? That might be unrealistic. Woods said Tuesday that he’s just happy to be on the course and testing his rebuilt game against the world’s top players and hoping to bring some of the mojo he’s built in practice rounds and fun competitions away from the spotlight into play this week.

“To come out here and be able to do what I’ve been doing the last few weeks with the guys, it’s been a lot of fun,” Woods said after his Tuesday practice round.

“I played some great rounds with the guys at home. They’ve been fantastic, to be honest with you, because I’ve gotten to know a lot of them through the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cups and I’ve really become very close with a few of them. It was fun to be able to do that again, which I hadn’t done in years.”

Woods played in this event last year as well, leading the field in birdies on the way to a 15th place finish that created hope that he would be able to return to the Tour full time. He then hurt his back playing in a European Tour event in Dubai and tried to return in San Diego before deciding on additional back surgery.

He says that things are different this time around.

“Last year I was still struggling with a little bit of pain,” Woods explained. “I was able to hit some good shots, able to play, but in looking back on it now, I look on it as playing in slow-mo but it was as hard as I could hit it. I didn’t realize how bad my back had become and how much I was flinching and just how slow I was.

“I didn’t realize it because it’s been a slow degrading process. I thought I had some speed, thought I was playing halfway decent, shot some good scores, but now I’ve looked back on it and man, I didn’t even have much at all.”

This year’s participants include Daniel Berger, Kevin Chappell, Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood of England, Rickie Fowler, Charley Hoffman, Dustin Johnson, Kevin Kisner, U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka, Matt Kuchar, defending champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Francesco Molinari of Italy, Alex Noren of Sweden, Patrick Reed, Olympic gold medal winner Justin Rose of England, British Open titlist Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, and FedEx Cup champion Justin Thomas, the reigning player of the year.

In all, seven of the 18 players have won major championships. Matsuyama will attempt to join Woods (2006-07) as the only players to win the Hero World Challenge in back-to-back seasons.

“I’m glad to be here,” Thomas said. “Obviously you’re doing something right if you’re playing in this tournament in this part of the year. Anytime you’re in the Bahamas it’s usually a good time, so looking forward to hopefully a good week.”

Woods’ enthusiasm about his return is palpable and shared with the rest of the field.

“He looks good, and just his demeanor and how positive and upbeat he sounds when he talks about how he feels with his golf game is more important than anything,” Thomas said of Woods. “The fact that he can just go through life let alone golf pain free is great for us all to hear, you know? You don’t want to see any of your friends hurt or be in pain, so it’s nice to hear that he’s been doing so well.”