NASSAU, Bahamas – It would be far too early to declare that Tiger Woods is back, what with the man having a stitched-together new back and only 36 holes on his dossier since last winter.
But we can say this: On Friday, Woods at least managed to give the game a loud wake-up call. Not with a gentle nudge on the elbow, or two taps on the snooze alarm, but with a pair of ringing cymbals that could be heard throughout the entire neighborhood.
Facing 265 yards to the front of the green after a booming drive at the 603-yard ninth, Woods pounded a 3-wood that whistled through the island breeze, carried onto the putting surface and settled 20 feet from the flagstick. He ran home the eagle putt, of course, raised his fist in the air, and all the hair stood up straight on golf’s giant arm. At the Hero World Challenge at Albany Golf Club, he was making the turn in 5-under 31.
Not only was Woods fist-pumping, but his appreciative fans were, too.
This wasn’t Woods making birdies around Amen Corner, or throttling the field at a U.S. Open at Pebble, for sure. But on a tiny little island in what is supposed to be something of a hit-and-giggle tournament that is contested when most of golf naps, Woods, bearing down on his 42nd birthday, grabbed it by the collar and shook hard as he put his name atop the greenside leaderboard through 27 holes of the Hero World Challenge.
Truthfully, it was pretty cool.
“It was very exciting,” said Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava. “He played a flawless front nine. He played great.”
It didn’t end as great, with Woods losing some steam over his final nine, making only one more birdie, which wasn’t enough to offset a pair of bogeys en route to a back-nine 37. He three-putted the par-3 12th from 30 feet and needed three more whacks with the putter from just off the front edge of the par-5 15th. Bigger picture, though, in two days, he’s gone from not knowing what to expect in his competitive return to posting 69-68. At 7-under 137, he at least is in the conversation for the weekend.
There’s only one opinion that really matters regarding the quality of his play, and that belongs to Woods. Two days in, he deemed his performance to this point a success. It’s hard to disagree.
“I built upon what I did yesterday,” Woods said. “I cleaned it up.”
He did. A day after appearing shaky on a few chips, he improved nicely, converting some terrific up and downs. There was a pitch over a bunker to a foot at the par-5 11th, and even a pitch standing on the green from long range at 17 when he had no angle to putt. A day after playing Albany’s five par 5s in 1 over, he played them in 4 under. He continues to make strides, and the best part is, he’s had no issues with his back.
Can he win? That would be a tall order. Even LaCava, one of the Tour’s more seasoned caddies, said at the week’s outset that realistically, he didn’t think that Woods could. After all, this may be a small field, but it’s filled with world-class players, and they’ve been playing great all year while Woods has been busily rehabbing.
Had LaCava changed his mind on Tiger’s chances after 36 holes?
“Now,” he said, “you certainly think there’s a shot. You like the fact after two days that you’ve got a chance.”
Woods sped right past any vagueness when asked if he could get the job done despite being five shots behind leader Charley Hoffman. “What do you think?” he playfully snarled as he stepped off the podium after his round.
As in, can Tiger Woods still win golf tournaments? Um, duh.
Hoffman had a sensational day at Albany, making 12 birdies – 12 birdies!! – and shooting 63. He is at 12-under 132 after two days. But after Hoffman finished playing, and after Woods already had spoken to the media, there were twice as many writers circling LaCava, a caddie, as there were around the tournament’s leader.
Welcome back to Tiger World, the FM station where it’s all Tiger, all the time.
“I mean, to be completely honest with you, I said at the beginning of the week, I hope he (Woods) wins. It’s great for the game of golf,” Hoffman said.
On Friday, Tiger’s exploits were dominating the Twitter stratosphere, and surely he was a hot topic at nearly every office water cooler. With every birdie he made, his odds to win a fifth Masters in April continued to drive down, and if he can get into the mix on Sunday, more than a few viewers will ditch NFL games to watch. “He can generate some excitement,” said his longtime manager, Mark Steinberg, smiling.
Turn up the HypeMeter. Tiger is back on the scene, and the sports world, not just the golf universe, sat up and took notice on Friday. Woods knows when he stirs things up, and Friday was one of those days.
“It’s very flattering,” Woods said, “very humbling that so many people really enjoyed what I’ve done throughout my first 20 years on Tour. I put a few smiles and excitement into people’s lives, and as an athlete, it’s very humbling.”
Not to mention pure, unabashed fun. He is competing once again, and somewhere near contention, and to Tiger Woods, there is nothing more enjoyable than that.