Despite record purses, a multitude of young stars and fairly solid TV ratings throughout the professional game, the Hero World Challenge served to emphatically underscore the notion that nobody moves the needle like Tiger Woods.
In fact, in many respects, he is the needle.
After infrequent play during recent injury-ravaged years on the PGA Tour, Woods resurfaced as the host of the unofficial, limited-field event in the Bahamian sun this week, his presence triggering a public temblor that turned into a tsunami.
Despite more personal baggage than a Freeport cruise ship, Woods continues to generate attention like no golfer in history.
In an era of hot takes, knee-jerk reactions, instantaneous Internet trolling and fast judgments, Woods’ score on Thursday hardly mattered, though it was nonetheless impressive. Woods made five birdies and finished with a 3-under 69, settling into a tie for eighth, three strokes behind England’s Tommy Fleetwood with three days left at Albany Golf Club on New Providence (scores: http://bit.ly/2wE1lpy).
“For me, I thought I did great,” Woods said, all but beaming.
Given the circumstances, few would argue.
The Hero event is a guaranteed-money, 18-man affair, with eight of the current top 10 in the world, yet all eyes were riveted on the guy ranked No. 1,119, a player who completed only three competitive rounds in 2017.
Woods certainly has played more memorable rounds in his two-decade career, which includes 14 major championships among his 79 PGA Tour titles. However, the round certainly was among the most anticipated 18 holes played by anybody in November.
“I didn’t want him to play again, because I wanted to remember the golf that he played,” Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo said moments before Woods teed off at 12:05 p.m. with Justin Thomas, the Tour’s reigning player of the year. “But he makes you watch. People that don’t play golf for a living, people that do play golf for a living, they are watching.”
After Woods underwent spinal-fusion surgery in April, his fourth back operation, his career prospects were very much open to question. His round Thursday was the highlight of a forgettable 2017, which included a humiliating DUI arrest, separate rehab efforts to overcome chemical and physical issues and the publication of nude photos on the Internet.
If it wasn’t the most-scrutinized round ever played in November, it was almost certainly the most hyped. GolfWorld’s website posted seven Woods-related stories Wednesday and Thursday. ESPN.com sent all three of its golf reporters to the offseason event. During the middle of Woods’ first round, Golf Channel’s website, offering streaming viewing for those at work, crashed. Alas, the company said the internal problems started the night before. OK, so Woods didn’t break the Internet, but he might have bent it a bit.
Pom-poms were waving at Golf Channel. On Thursday, “Morning Drive” host Gary Williams read a quote from Woods in which the ex-No. 1 said he ultimately aspires to put current young stars under a similar stress that his old foes once faced. Gushed Williams: “Please, let that happen again. I'm begging you.”
Later, former Masters champion Trevor Immelman essentially conceded that Woods’ comeback will not be unanimously well-received: “He is the most polarizing athlete on the planet, even though he hasn’t competed in the last four years.” True, but whether folks are rooting for or against, they’re invested, which was the central point of the day.
Woods, who freely admitted that he wasn’t fully prepared for live fire and that he would be “ramping up” to full-fledged readiness as his body allowed, showed zero signs of limitations. He pounded his driver all day, recording three pokes of 340-plus yards on the back nine, plus a swing speed on No. 9 of 178 mph, which would have ranked among the top 20 on the PGA Tour in 2016-17.
That said, there were several signs of rust. He badly chunked two pitch shots, just as he had while battling the short-game yips in early 2016, and bungled a handful of other short-game efforts. He fanned a driver into the palmetto bushes on the 15th, his only truly wild shot of the day.
No doubt, his challenges are as plentiful as dimples on the ball. Woods isn’t merely trying to overcome yet another surgery, which resulted in his eighth career layoff of 10 or more weeks because of injury, but yet another swing overhaul, this one precipitated by new restrictions in his spinal rotation. Remember, he signed a new TaylorMade deal in January and then shut it down for the year, so he’s got new clubs and a new ball to integrate into his latest swing iteration, too.
Then again, if anybody is capable of pulling it off, it’s Woods. After all, he has reached world No. 1 with four different swings, under the tutelage of three coaches.
Woods conceded that his game remains a work in progress. Patience, he said, was paramount.
That lasted roughly two hours.
Vestiges of vintage Woods quickly materialized in the Bahamian breeze. After blowing his driver past Thomas on the par-5 third – Thomas ranked eighth in driving distance last year, at 309.7 yards – Woods sent a 2-iron whistling through the heavy seaside air and muttered, “Oh, be good,” as he cockily strutted after the shot.
On the fourth, he holed an 18-footer for par, prompting his first public fist pump in at least 10 months. When Woods flubbed an easy chip on the ninth, he unleashed a trademark F-bomb that was clearly conveyed via the TV microphone. Another expletive was broadcast on the 11th, and after a poor tee shot on the 12th, he buried a 6-iron in the turf.
So, in some ways, it was as if he never left.
“Swing looks great, and the intensity is there, too,” Albany course designer Ernie Els, a four-time major champion, told Golf Channel, while somehow suppressing a grin.
It was an encouraging first step. When making a full swing, Woods was largely in control and hitting it where he was looking – not bad, considering he had been razed and remodeled yet again.
“I didn’t know what I could do,” Woods told Golf Channel. “I’ve been playing golf, playing a lot of holes at home, but it’s different when you tee it up in a tournament. I had a lot of adrenaline going there. I was hitting a little bit longer than I normally do, and I had to dial it back a little bit. Those are the internal struggles I haven’t been through in a while.”
Curtis Strange, a longtime analyst and two-time U.S. Open winner, tried to wrest the public attention span back onto the rails as Woods toured the seaside venue, exceeding most expectations.
“He has nothing to prove to anyone,” Strange tweeted. “Let all of us watch this week and hope he takes a step forward. Let's pass judgment in 8-10 months. Not this week.”