The Hero We Need: Tiger’s back!
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

After 301 days away from competitive golf, Tiger Woods returned at the 18-player, no cut invitational the Hero World Challenge, an event where he also plays hosts. Tiger didn’t disappoint in what was an encouraging display of golf, hitting 11 greens in regulation, seven fairways and rounding it out with 27 putts.

As he played the par-4 18th, there was a double rainbow looming over the hole at Albany Golf Club in the Bahamas. It felt like a good omen. And it was — Woods holed a seven-footer to save par and posted a three-under 69 to kick off his latest comeback.

Woods hit some solid drives, irons and stroked the flatstick well. There was, of course, some rust. He’s played nine straight days in a row, but we all know competition is very different than slapping it around with your pals and giving each other three-footers. He chunked two chips, with the first on the 9th and he reacted appropriately with a very audible F-bomb. Yep, he’s baaaaaack. (But in that moment, we are all Tiger Woods.)

It felt like the entire sports world was watching and rooting for Woods. Hell, I fit some first-tee jitters and goosebumps while Woods stepped up to the first tee. He piped his first drive (way past his playing partner Justin Thomas who is known for his distance).

I won’t give you the play-by-play of the entire round, but here are some of the highlights with commentary from myself and quotes from Tiger when he spoke with us after signing his card.

This 2-iron on the second hole was sick.

Woods proceeded to two-putt for his first birdie of the day.

It didn’t take long for Woods to feel comfortable.

“I was very happy I found the rhythm of the round by the second hole,” said Tiger. “After I hit that 8-iron in there pin high, I felt I’ve got the rhythm. On 3 I smashed a drive down there and then about 265 into the wind with a 2-iron, I just hit it on a rope, put it up there on the green. I knew I was back playing again.”

The first fist-pump of the day came on the par-4 4th, where he made a 15-footer to save par. I’m not going to lie — it was sweet to see the signature TW fist-pump after oh-so-long.

“It felt great because I don’t want to lose shots,” said Woods when asked how the first fist-pump of the day felt. “I haven’t played in a very long time and I can’t afford to go out there and make a bunch of bogeys and know that I can make 9, 10 birdies and offset them.

“These guys have been playing all year, they’ve been playing well, and if they make a few bogeys, who cares, they can make seven or eight birdies a day, especially on a golf course like this. If I would have done that last year, I would have given myself a little bit better chance and that’s what I tried to do today.”

On the long par-3 8th, Woods didn’t hit the greatest 4-iron off the tee, but he still found the putting surface and holed a 25-footer for birdie. Another fist-pump!

Tiger’s first notable hiccup came at the par-5 9th, with the aforementioned chunked chip from a tight lie. He carded his first bogey of the day.

He wasted no time getting the shot back with a 15-footer for birdie on the 10th.

Tiger didn’t take advantage of the par-5s and almost dropped another shot on the par-5 11th, but he rolled in a clutch seven-footer to save par. Whew.

He added another birdie on the 13th from 20 feet.

Then, he stuck it tight on the 14th for back-to-back birds, which put him within one of the lead.

Woods encountered more trouble on a par-5 — this time the 15th, where he hit his first really poor drive. He had to take an unplayable lie and ended up posting a bogey.

He finished the day with three straight pars.

All in all, it was a good day and Tiger reminded us afterward that he’s only trailing by three shots. Tommy Fleetwood, who captured the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, opened with a six-under 66 to take a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler.

Woods was one-over on the five par-5s at Albany, which is disappointing for any professional golfer.

“Up and down because I had a lot of birdies, made a lot of putts,” said Woods when asked to describe his round. “I didn’t play the par 5s very well, made two 6s and I grinded it out and made a few pars, which is nice.”

Woods is tied for eighth with Thomas, Charley Hoffman and Francesco Molinari. He was relieved to notch his first competitive round in 10 months. (It’s been that long since Dubai?!? Time flies.)

“It was not only nice to get the first round out of the way, but also I’m only
three shots out of the lead,” said Tiger. “So to be able to put myself there after not playing for, is it 10 months or so, in the neighborhood of that, it was nice to feel the adrenaline out there.

“I had to dial it back a little bit with my clubs, take it a little bit further because obviously I was a little jacked up. The shot that I hit over there at 14 was pretty sweet, a little 95-yard pitching wedge. If I would have had that same shot early in the round, I couldn’t have played it because I hadn’t figured out how to dial it back yet.”

Woods also noted that when he started playing last month in Jupiter with guys like Rickie Fowler, he had to ask Fowler what club he was hitting because he didn’t know his distances. (Tiger is getting more and more relatable. Story of my life!)

He acknowledged that his driver and putting were the strongest parts of his game in the first round. As for the chipping, he’s not the only one who is struggling on these tight lies on Bermuda grass.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating because I have a hard time with this into-the-grain,
ball sitting down,” said Woods when asked about the rust with his chipping. “I have to hit the ball high. I’m used to using the bounce and hitting behind it a little bit and getting it up, but it’s so sticky that it’s really hard to do. I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”

Thomas provided more insight to the chipping situation at Albany and Tiger’s game.

“Yeah, but the thing is everyone’s going to struggle around the greens
out here, said JT, the reigning PGA and FedExCup champion. “The ball, I mean the lie that I had on 14 there I would have loved to hand a couple people in the audience my wedge and see how they would have done. That part is difficult for anybody, but you can get some squirrely lies.

“But I don’t know, man, I truly felt like he was going to play well just from one round when we played and then a practice round here. It’s not like it’s a course where you have to be perfect, it’s pretty generous off the tees. Obviously it can get windy and some crosswinds, but I expected him to play well in terms of a number. And the rust, that’s different and you never know what’s going to happen there. But today definitely didn’t surprise me by any means”

Woods added that the difference between today and last year when he made a comeback at this event was he wasn’t tired.

“You saw, you could see I was 3 or 4 under par and then make a couple dubs, a couple bogeys here or there and lose the round. This year obviously with my back better, my training sessions have been much better, my strength is up and I didn’t feel tired at all, which is great.”

Most of all, Woods is grateful to be where he is today.

“I was very thankful this morning,” he said. “I was in my head thanking all the people who have helped me in giving me a chance to come back and play this round again. There were a lot of people that were instrumental in my life; friends, outside people I’ve never met before, obviously my surgeon. So there have been a lot of people. I was very thankful. I make sure in my head I try to thank every one of them.”

It was apparently very obvious how touching I found those words. A PGA Tour media official said he could tell by the look on my face — yep, I’m a sap and I’ve been writing a lot privately and a bit publicly via social media about how thankful I am for a number of reasons. Hopefully I’ll be ready to share in more detail soon.

We’re glad to have you back, Tiger. Hope he keeps it up for three more rounds! And don’t forget, everyone — as much as we want to see him succeed, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and temper the expectations. It’s a bit too soon to start declaring him the favorite for the Masters. Let’s just stay in the moment and enjoy one shot at a time.

Rickie Fowler, who shot a solid five-under 67, is sporting a cool new hat. I daftly asked Rickie what the “P” stood for and he jokingly gave me a hard time about it. I guessed it was “P for PUMA,” but hey, I just wanted to make sure. It also gave me the opportunity to utilize portrait mode on my new iPhone X, which is super sick.

Good news for fans who also think Rickie’s hat is cool — PUMA is sending me some to giveaway. Stay tuned for details.

He also shared some thoughts on his buddy Tiger.

“I didn’t see anything really,” said Rickie when asked about Tiger’s first round back. “I think all I heard was, I can’t really call it a roar, not like there’s grandstands or anything out here, a Tiger roar for out here. He made a putt on No. 8, we happened to be close by there, maybe 100 yards away. You can’t really see a whole lot of scoreboards or anything like that, so it’s not like you’re able to keep up with what other guys are doing.

“I just want him to come here and play solid golf and be healthy and feel good where he’s going to be able to go play some of the west coast to start the year. The biggest thing for him I saw playing at home with him, he was swinging it good enough, hitting it plenty far. Just keep doing that. I think his biggest thing was he wanted to tighten up the yardages. He wasn’t sure how far things were going partly because he was hitting it further than he was. Hey, you don’t have to hit it any further. Dial it in here, you’re going to make putts, you’re fine, just go out there and play golf.”

Tiger Woods tees off Friday morning at 11:43am alongside Henrik Stenson. The final pairing of Tommy Fleetwood and Rickie Fowler will round up the day at 12:38pm.