Woods shows he isn’t done yet in return to tour: ‘I feel like my game’s not that far off’

Tiger Woods, of the United States, tees off on the second hole during the final round of the Hero World Challenge PGA Tour at the Albany Golf Club, in New Providence, Bahamas, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (Fernando Llano/AP)

The Sunday red-and-black outfit made its return in the Bahamas as Tiger Woods arrived at the Hero World Challenge for the final round. He had made it. There were questions, of course — how many golfing lives does this big cat have? — but he answered them all. Seventy-two holes in the books.

The acknowledgement that Woods’ on-course efforts will never be the same as we move forward, though, is while he rocked that usual Sunday ensemble, underneath those black trousers was a leg sleeve of the same colours.

It covered him up. Damage was done, but he made it through.

Woods ended up at even par for the week, the first time he teed it up at a tournament since he withdrew from the Masters in April when he decided not to continue with his fourth round due to weather. He didn’t finish last this week. In fact, he beat Wyndham Clark — the winner of this year’s U.S. Open — and Will Zalatoris.

Scottie Scheffler won by three over Sepp Straka after a 4-under 68 Sunday.

Prior to the tournament, Woods made a point of saying he was aiming to play one event per month in 2024. He didn’t waver in his assessment by the time Sunday night rolled around.

“I think that I can get into the rhythm of it,” Woods told reporters in the Bahamas. “I think that having a couple of weeks off to recover, a week to build up, there’s no reason why I can’t get into that rhythm. It’s just a matter of getting in better shape basically.

“I feel like my game’s not that far off, but I need to get in better shape.”

There were clear signs of success, but also of strain. Woods’ strokes gained number off the tee was impressive — he was fourth in the field of 20 — and he was eighth in driving distance. He struggled with the rest of his game, though, and chalked that up to just not being in tournament shape. “Putting pencil to paper,” he said earlier in the week, was a different animal.

The red-and-black outwardly showed Woods was ready to go (he’ll tee it up alongside son Charlie at the PNC Championship in two weeks, too) but just like the leg sleeve underneath it all, we know things will never be the same.

But there’s hope, of course. The greatest modern athlete in the game isn’t done yet.

“I haven’t (played) in a while, I haven’t done it with my ankle the way it is now, and I was excited each and every day to kind of get through it and kind of start piecing rounds together again,” Woods said. “I haven’t done this in a long time. So it was fun to feel that again.”

After his Masters withdrawal, Woods had a subtalar fusion procedure with the main priority of trying to enjoy a more normal life. This week in the Bahamas, Woods beat Zalatoris — who also hasn’t teed it up on the PGA Tour since April as he recovers from back surgery — by 11 shots. Woods’ walk stayed the same throughout the week. He made 19 birdies. This isn’t a serious event on the PGA Tour schedule but there was an impressive field — Scheffler, the winner, is the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world — and Woods took this return seriously.

He said he was most impressed with his driving and how much his ball speed was “up.” He knows he doesn’t have to go and find something with his game or his swing over the next few weeks as he leans into the event with his son or as he begins to have a laser-like focus on the new year — likely his first event in 2024 will be the Genesis Invitational, which he is the host of.

“Every day I got faster into the round. The first day took me a while to get a handle on it, second day was faster, today was right away. And that’s eventually, when I play on a regular basis, that’s normally how it is. It takes me usually during warmup before I get a feel for the round. To be honest, that first day took me a while,” Woods admitted. “What I’ve been working on is right there and maybe just tighten up a little bit.”

So, where do we go from here? We know when Woods will be in action again. That parent-and-child event starts Dec. 15. His son, Charlie, has gotten to be pretty darn good. He won a high school state golf championship in mid-November. The elder Woods was his caddie at a few tournaments and was coy when he asked if his son would return the favour at a major championship.

And then the holiday season rolls around, and Woods turns 48 on Dec. 30, and the calendar turns, and the PGA Tour season starts anew. There are plenty of questions on what the game’s landscape will look like then and moving forward (and Woods will have a say in that, as a player director on the PGA Tour’s policy board) but as far as Woods, the golfer, goes, his parting words were a positive.

A lot has changed, but some things stay the same.

“I’ve got some work to do,” Woods said of his game, “and excited to get back to work.”

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