NASSAU, Bahamas – For the first time in three years, Tiger Woods is home at his own Hero World Challenge in this yacht-populated island paradise, with some sort of clue about what lies ahead with his golf. That’s different, for starters.
Two years ago, he showed flashes of good play and solid shots at Albany, then teed it up for three 2017 rounds and basically called it a year in early February. Because of that, expectations were tempered heading into 2018 after he tied for ninth at the 2017 Hero – as player No. 1,199 in the Official World Golf Ranking. (He is now 13th.) Though Woods responded well – a Sunday charge at Valspar, two good runs at the majors, his first victory in five years, a berth on the Ryder Cup team, and most importantly, good health – he considered his 2017-18 season to be a constantly moving target.
He took it on in small snippets and dialed-down road maps, first trying to get beyond the West Coast events, then through the Masters, and so on into summer. When he struck his last shot during a highly forgettable week in late September in Paris, he had played seven of nine weeks and was spent physically and mentally. (He finished 0-4 at the Ryder Cup.)
But as Woods refreshes, reboots and once more reinvents himself for another PGA Tour campaign, there is an interesting combination among his cards. He stuck around deep into the year’s last two majors (British Open and PGA), and can’t help but hold high anticipation for the first three major venues of 2019.
If you think Woods’ major odometer is destined to spin forever on 14, consider this: His first three major starts of 2019 (health permitting) will come at Augusta (four green jackets); Bethpage Black for the PGA (site of his 2002 U.S. Open victory); and Pebble Beach, the setting for his most dominant performance ever, in the 2000 U.S. Open, when he made the world’s best players appear to be left-handed juniors. At a major championship in which every shot is a grind, he won by (gulp!) 15 shots. Had the U.S. Golf Association handed him two trophies that week, nobody would have questioned it.
Sure, this is a time to rest and build strength for what’s next, and the next major is five months away. Yet what lies ahead in a few flips of the calendar at the tournaments that mean the most to him gets him genuinely excited. It has to.
“What I did in the last two major championships, I gave myself a chance to win both of them and I was right there,” Woods said Tuesday before the 18-man Hero World Challenge, an unofficial PGA Tour event that begins Thursday (tee times). (Woods had the back-nine lead at Carnoustie and tied for sixth, and was second to Brooks Koepka at the PGA.) “That’s ultimately what we want to happen. Now it’s about trying to get everything to peak together like I did for those two weeks to do it again four more times. That’s the trick.
“As you look at anyone who’s ever played this game, that is the most difficult thing to do. That’s why people haven’t won a lot of major championships, because it’s so hard to do. Fortunately, I was able to do it 14 times, and hopefully more in the future.”
Having won four or more tournaments in 12 of his PGA Tour seasons – let that one sink in a bit – Woods surely cannot consider a 2017-18 body of work in which he won once (Tour Championship) and finished second in the FedEx Cup playoffs among his most decorated seasons. He did, however, call the 2017-18 season his “most rewarding.”
That’s fair, considering the depths from where Woods was emerging after four procedures on a back so badly contorted that he struggled to get out of bed and stand up some mornings. (“It was a pretty dark and tough time,” he said.) There were some strong signs in his game: Woods was fourth in strokes gained total, 34th in driving distance (303.4 yards, which means his speed has returned) and seventh in scoring (69.35).
This "next" act is something of an encore – Thanksgiving gravy, if you will – and something that, just a few years ago, many doubted we'd even get to see.
Imagine the competitive delight of an up-and-comer such as Tony Finau, who as a youngster 20 years ago dreamed often about going head-to-head at the U.S. Open or Masters with the best golfer since Jack Nicklaus. Finau, 29, had yet to make it onto the Tour when Woods was winning five times in 2013, and like many, pondered whether Woods’ days of contending for titles weren’t altogether behind him.
As for those dreams Finau had going up against Woods as a kid?
“It seems more of a reality and possibility than it ever has,” said Finau, who played a first practice round with Woods at the Tour Championship and was his teammate at the Ryder Cup. “To be on Tour now is really special, because I think we’re going to have a few years to compete against Tiger when he’s playing good golf and is in a good mindset. It’s going to be a cool thing.”
Woods has tempered expectations, as should we all. He turns 43 on Dec. 30, and that cold-blooded phenom who always was most comfortable in the highest heat and all but invincible in Sunday red all those years is something best left for old highlight reels and reunions. Following his news conference Tuesday, asked how his expectations stack up to, say, 15 years ago, Woods chuckled. At some point, even on those days when the fused back feels the best that it can, a man cannot scoop the sand that has departed and funnel any of it back into the hourglass.
As an icy competitor, Woods never allowed observers a full look inside when he was dominating the game. Tuesday, he was asked about those incredible expectations that he harbored in his late 20s.
“Just to win,” he said. “Win everything, because I could.”
These days, the great play is more apt to arrive in bits and pieces and spurts. Having won again two months ago, career Tour victory No. 80, makes Major No. 15 his next natural progression.
Just the mention, and the not-so-small seed of what's possible, makes 2019 at the majors quite intriguing, no?
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62