Is Woods back? Yes, and get ready for more
By STEVE ELLING  | December 4, 2017
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Tiger Woods completed his second 72-hole tournament in 28 months over the weekend in the Bahamas, so you might have felt the breeze from the blowback, which at times roared like a summer hurricane out of the Caribbean.

The controversial former world No. 1 has been missing in action for most of the past three seasons, but his return at the Hero World Challenge generated levels of huffing, hyperventilating and hating that were reminiscent of his peak years.

Then consider these times to be the pique years, given the uncertainty that still surrounds the enigmatic Woods. He competed for the first time since he endured spinal fusion surgery on his torque-ravaged lower back in April.

Based on the torrents of fan interest, sycophantic media coverage and impressive scoring for Woods – 69-68-75-68 for an 8-under 280 and a tie for ninth in the elite 18-man unofficial event at Albany Golf Club – it almost felt as if he never had gone (scores: http://bit.ly/2wE1lpy). However, whether the week represented the raising of the curtain on a memorable final act of his career or merely another cameo appearance might be up to Woods himself.


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“It feels good to be out here fighting again,” Woods said over the weekend. “I’ve missed the fight. And getting out there competing and fighting against the golf course and rest of the guys, it’s so much fun. And I’ve missed doing this.”

But the elephant in the room in Tiger’s lair is the degree of discipline that he will apply to his latest reinvention. So, fusion begets confusion? Quite possibly. 

For Woods, who turns 42 on Dec. 30, it was an indisputable step forward to complete a week without reporting physical pain while hitting some truly vintage shots. But let’s take a collective deep breath and consider the potentialities on the horizon, which is where the eyeballs already are affixed.

While the surgery effectively melded two lower-back disks into one, that procedure places more strain on the surrounding vertebrae. TV analyst Lanny Wadkins, a major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer, underwent spinal fusion years ago. 

“I could easily see him in 15 to 18 tournaments [per year], no problem,” Wadkins told Golf Channel. Yet, Wadkins also noted how he had required microdiscectomy surgery on yet another vertebra, because of the increased stress in that area after the fusion procedure.

In order to compete with the current crop of stars, especially after such a long layoff and four winless seasons, Woods needs to practice and play. His balky back might not allow it consistently.

Given the question marks, Woods preached patience all week. Yet even after the drama and trauma, he isn’t wired for taking baby steps. By the second round, he was cursing, burying clubs in the turf and bemoaning poor shots.

He generated eye-popping ball speeds off his driver, consistently at 179-180 mph, which ranks among the top speeds on the PGA Tour. He clearly was putting the pedal to the titanium metal. 

To the delight of millions, he also was leading the tournament at midday Friday, seemingly taking a time-machine trip back to 2013, when he won his most recent of 79 Tour titles. Six birdies and an eagle in his final-round 68 on Sunday completed an exhilarating week for fans.

It fueled an optimistic ending to a brutal 2017 for Woods, which included two forms of rehab: physical and pharmacological (“Woods needs help, and his life might depend on it,” May 31, http://bit.ly/2rFStwz). There was the humiliation of a DUI arrest and the publication of nude photos on the Internet. He admitted to an addiction to painkillers, which prompts another question: If the back pain returns, will ibuprofen be strong enough?

There are a few game-related niggles, too. He is playing with new clubs, a new ball and a new swing, the latter necessitated by the latest surgery, the fourth in three years on his lower back. Yet Woods was healthy enough to hit practice balls after his rounds for the first time in years, caddie Joe LaCava pointed out. 

“This is ahead of what I thought, for sure, from a health standpoint and from the score and the shots he’s hitting,” LaCava told the New York Post.

Woods professed not to be surprised by the way he played. He was as aloof and snarky as ever in taking a shot at the analysts who expressed concern about whether he should have returned.

“I knew how I was playing at home,” Woods said Saturday. “I knew how I was hitting shots. I knew what was going on. Obviously, the very smart people out there didn’t know.”

Woods has been mum about his plans. Last year, coming off another surgery, he scheduled an aggressive early-season schedule, missed a cut in San Diego and collected an appearance fee in Dubai before his back blew up after the first round. With a lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour, he can play in any regular event, except for the World Golf Championships and invitationals.

Yet for the guy who has been through treatment for sex and chemical addictions, restraint should be his new occupational hallmark. After eight surgeries on his knees and back, the big cat perhaps is burning his proverbial ninth life.

Millions rooting for and against Woods will be watching to see whether he somehow can author another career comeback.

"Overall, I’m very pleased,” Woods said. “I showed some good signs. I hit some really good shots out there. You know, a bright future.”

After four years of intermittent play or outright absence, pumping the brakes is probably the last thing on the mind of Woods, whose personal life has been one of excess, not moderation. 

“We’re going to sit down here, try to figure out the best way to build my schedule for the major championships, play how much, what my training cycles are going to be,” he said Sunday. “Play enough, but don’t play too much.”

This time around, for the sake of prolonging his career, less actually might mean more.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling

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