There were glimpses Thursday at the Hero World Challenge. A few roasted drives, piercing irons and improbable putts that reminded the world Tiger Woods remains capable of playing like one of the world’s best players.
It was moments like the 11th hole, where Woods holed a 48-foot birdie putt and left Justin Thomas shaking his head in amazement. Thomas made a 6-footer for a birdie of his own but walked off the green exasperated.
“That felt like 5 feet longer after somebody’s putt,” Thomas exclaimed.
Woods had that effect when he was rattling off PGA TOUR wins with ease. A routineness to his greatness that was apparent as soon as he stepped on the first tee. It’s still in him now – despite numerous back surgeries, a disastrous car accident in 2021 and, most recently, an ankle fusion. It’s just not there with regularity.
Woods’ 3-over first round of 75 on Thursday flashed enough to believe he can contend in the future.
Just not yet.
Not without more competitive reps, more trial and error and more refinement. That much was clear to Woods post-round.
“I just didn’t quite commit to what I was doing and feeling,” he said. “You take it for granted, I guess, when you’re playing all the time.”
It was little things, like putting the ball in the back of the stance when the wind was up. To lean on the shot, flight it down and add a couple of yards it.
“Instead of reacting to it, I was thinking about doing it,” Woods said.
Put another way, it’s the muscle memory of competing that’s ingrained in a golfer. The thoughts, feelings and adjustments that don’t need consideration when making 20 TOUR starts a year. Woods was playing amongst those golfers Thursday, but he wasn’t one of them. His muscles were still learning.
Considering Woods had yet to keep score in any round since he withdrew from this year’s Masters over seven months ago, it’s a reality that he’s willing to stomach. There could be worse alternatives.
Woods played Thursday’s first round without pain in his fused right ankle, a procedure he’s spent the last seven months recovering from. The surgery remedied the plantar fascitis issue that caused him to withdraw Saturday at the Masters, but it left the rest of his body to compensate.
He admitted he was sore “everywhere,” but his stride had no noticeable limp. That was an improvement from just 24 hours prior when he cut his pro-am short after nine holes. He averaged 313 yards off the tee in the first round, a mark that would best his season average in each of the last four years.
He made the aforementioned bomb for birdie on No. 11. He also holed a 22-footer on No. 3 for his first birdie of the day and a 28-foot birdie on the par-3 fifth. He theoroughly outplayed Thomas on the front nine, before the roles reversed on the back.
“Physically I knew I was going to be OK,” said Woods, who shot 39 on the back nine after making the turn in even-par. “Mentally, I was really rusty and made a lot of errors in the mind that normally I don’t make.”
There were wayward swings, too. His miss was right most of the day, until a double-crossed teeball on No. 15 left him in a precarious position up against a bush. He opted not to take an unplayable but only advanced his ball a foot. That forced him to pitch out backward and eventually make a double-bogey. He dropped from 1-under to 1-over, then back-to-back bogeys on 16 and 17 pushed him to 3-over.
They were the type of bogeys that make sense for a rusty golfer. A pitch shot that stopped just short of taking a slope down towards the hole on No. 16 led to an uncomfortably long par putt that burned the edge. And a three-putt on No. 17 as the round was slipping away. They are the mistakes Woods is unaccustomed to making when in a rhythm. And ones that conceivably will disappear once he finds one.
It began to trend in that direction on the par-5 sixth hole. Woods was 1-under through his first five holes and had just birdied two of his last three holes. But after laying up with his second shot, Woods was forced to wait 10-15 minutes to hit his third as Scottie Scheffler dealt with a rules incident up near the green. Woods hit a lousy approach from 105 yards out when it finally cleared, landing short of the green. He missed a 6-foot par putt to drop a shot.
“It was a bit awkward to kind of start again because we took so much time off and we were in a nice rhythm,” Woods said. “That’s tournament golf and that’s something I haven’t dealt with in a while… Those are things that we take for granted by playing a lot and I haven’t done it.”
He has three more days to fill the memory bank with situations like that and many more routine ones to get comfortable. The question that will linger beyond this week is whether it’s enough. If it will ever be enough. Woods said earlier this week that the best-case scenario for 2024 is playing one tournament per month. Will that yield enough competitive reps to lead to contention in some of golf’s biggest events? Or is he bound to play rusty consistently because his body won’t fully allow him to reach peak form?
Woods believes he can. He said during his pre-tournament press conference that he can “absolutely” win again.
Doubt at your own peril.
Source : PGA Tour