Woods taking one-day-at-a-time approach
There will 18 players teeing it up on Thursday for the $3.5 million in purse money offered at the no-cut Hero World Challenge at the Albany resort in New Providence in the Bahamas.
Golf enthusiasts, however, likely will be focused on just one player: Tiger Woods.
That intense focus and scrutiny is nothing new for Woods, but the circumstances this time around make this weekend's work on the course unique. It will mark Woods' first time to play an official competitive round since August 2015 after he took an extended sabbatical from the tour to rehab and recuperate from back surgery.
In the interim, the 79-time winner on the PGA Tour and arguably the greatest player in the sport dropped to 898th in the world rankings. Woods also had to change equipment companies when Nike ended its manufacture of clubs and balls and rebuild his swing (again) to take less pressure off his back.
Historically when Woods plays, interest in golf as a whole and participation in the sport increases exponentially. But there are so many questions about Woods and his future that can't even be addressed until he tests his game in real competition over a four-day stretch.
“As the week goes on, I can give you more detailed answers on where I'm at and the feel that I have, but as of right now I'm still at the beginning stages of that process,” Woods said during a press conference Tuesday.
“It's nice being back out here. What most people don't really understand is how much of a fraternity this tour really is. The amount of dinners I've gone out to with the guys, the texts, the phone calls over the last 14, 15, 16 months – the guys wanted me to come back out here and play or help in any way possible.”
Woods, who will turn 41 on Dec. 30, had planned to return from his hiatus last month at the Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., but withdrew on Monday of tournament week when he thought his game was not fit enough to compete.
Woods said the injury to his back and the issues he's dealt with in his rehab were much scarier than the other physical setbacks he's endured in his career.
“There was a lot of trepidation and times where I did think of (retirement) because it was realistic,” Woods said. “Not being able to get out of bed, not being able to move, how can I expect to come out here and swing a golf club at 120 miles an hour when I can't even get out of bed?”
“When I had my knee redone and it was completely blown, I knew it was nine months, but I knew I could come back from it – it's not nerve damage. But when you're dealing with a spine, when you're dealing with nerves, it's a totally different deal.”
As much as his peers are happy to have Woods back in the fold, don't expect them to stand aside and let him roll to a win. It's a dog-eat-dog world out here, just the way Woods likes it.
“I feel bad for him in a way – the expectations are so high,” PGA Tour player Jim Furyk said. “The rest of us can kind of slip out maybe under the radar. Every pitch shot, every putt, every 3-footer is not under public scrutiny like it is with him.”
He will have his work cut out for him against the likes of defending champion Bubba Watson, Olympic gold medalist Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Jordan Spieth, the 2016 U.S. Open winner in Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.
“My expectations,” Watson said, “are that it's Tiger Woods. We expect him to win again.”
Woods, the host this week, has captured this event five times in its 16 years of existence. He will tee it up Thursday with the notion that he can do it again.
“I haven't played in a while, but hey, I'm going to give it my best,” Woods said. “I'm going to be focused, I'm going to do what I can do and put the ball in the correct spots, give myself looks and try to bury these putts, post scores, and get myself in that mix come Sunday afternoon. I'm entered in an event; I'm going to try to win this thing.”
As for after this tournament? First things first, Woods reminded everyone on Tuesday.
“I want to do this as long as I can, as long as the body will allow me to,” he said. “As far as how much golf I'm going to play, I don't know because I don't know what my back's going to be doing. Would I like to play a full schedule every year for the next decade plus? Yeah, I would, that would be great. Can I? I don't know. We'll see. I'm going to do everything I can.”