Tiger Woods returns amid varied expectations, high interest
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NASSAU, Bahamas — Everyone is watching, everyone is curious, and Jordan Spieth had the perfect view of Tiger Woods for his return to golf.
Spieth was on the 17th green and looked across a narrow pond to the ninth tee at Albany Golf Club where Woods stood over his tee shot during the Wednesday pro-am. He saw the swing, but he lost sight of the ball in the glare of the tropical sun.
"Where did it go?" Spieth said as he tried to gauge where the ball might land. "Not in the fairway."
He looked again.
"Whoa! There it is — WAY down there," he said. "Damn."
The shots and the score don't count until Thursday at the Hero World Challenge with an 18-man field, small but strong. Woods is playing for the first time in 465 days. The expectations have rarely been this varied. The interest is as high as ever.
"He's the only person ... in the last 30 years in golf that any expectation you set, he'll somehow prove to you that he can do better," Spieth said. "But I think with this, I just hope that everyone gives him time. I hope he has the time to fall into a rhythm and just get enough tournaments where he can kind of build up that seeing the shots under competition, under the gun.
"You can look back 10 years at shots you hit. It's not the same as looking back the week before on a positive swing."
Woods last played on Aug. 23, 2015, when he closed with a 70 at the Wyndham Championship to fall out of contention and tie for 10th. Two back surgeries followed, leaving him so debilitated at times that he wondered if he would ever play.
He tees off at high noon in the Bahamas with Patrick Reed, who idolized his golf so much as a teenager that he wears black pants and a red shirt on Sunday.
Reed is but one example of the golf landscape to which Woods returns, one of seven players in the 18-man field who were not even on tour when Woods last won a major at the 2008 U.S. Open. Another is Russell Knox, who said recently, "My short career will never be over until I play with Tiger Woods."
It was only three years ago that Woods won five times and was PGA Tour player of the year. That still wasn't the dominance he once had over the game, for he finished in the top 10 only 53
Woods had five or more victories 11 times in a span of 13 seasons.
"The better he plays, the better it is for golf," Rickie Fowler said. "Whether he gets back to the way he did in the early 2000s — from what I've heard, it was arguably the best anyone has ever played — that might be tough because of injuries, and he's at a different age. It's not like he's been away that long. It just seems longer because of how dominant he was."
Woods declared himself ready to play and said, "I'm going to try to win this thing."
The pro-am is never a true measure, and the wind was whipping across the island on Wednesday. Even so, Woods showed no sign of fatigue or aches, and his swing certainly looked more efficient than when he was playing no more than 10 times each of the previous two years as he was trying to navigate a bad back.
On the par-5 third hole, he hit a drive and a 3-iron to about 10 feet for an eagle. He also had a few bogeys along the way. Conditions were not easy on any of the players. Woods said there were no surprises about how he played, and his only complaint was getting his speed right on the green.
"I was able to hit all the shots I needed to hit," he said.
Spieth has seen Woods when he was No. 1 in the world. He'd love nothing more than to see the Woods that once made winning — majors included — look routine.
"We all hope for many reasons that he comes back fully healthy and his game is fully back," Spieth said. "To name one, you don't ever want to see somebody go down because of injury. And two, I think it was a dream for all of us young guys to one day grow up and battle Tiger on a Sunday when he was playing his best, and see if you can Y.E. Yang it, see if you can pull off a shot where you can take him down."
Yang rallied from two behind to beat Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship, the only time Woods lost a major when leading going into the final round.
Woods has played with Fowler and Justin Rose, Jason Dufner and Justin Thomas, in recent months. Simulating tournament conditions is a different matter, and that will be the ultimate measure this week and beyond.
"He's been out of competitiveness for quite some time, so that might be a little while before you find your bearings again," Henrik Stenson said. "But as you know, he's done some remarkable things throughout his career. And if there's someone that can jump right back up and play some great golf again, that would be him."