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Woods begins latest comeback with no guarantees

By Will GrayOctober 30, 2017, 11:15 pm

Here we go again.

With a quick blog post and a tweet launched into the social media ether, Tiger Woods again lit a flame to the biggest tinderbox in golf.

Will his oft-injured back hold up in the latest iteration of his return to competition, now set for the Hero World Challenge a month from now? Can he improve upon last year’s result, where he led the field in birdies but only beat two players across 72 holes? Is there still time to get a bet down in Vegas that he’ll slip on a fifth green jacket in April?

After months of sparse updates and rudderless speculation, it’s all again on the table. Woods will step back inside the ropes a few weeks before his 42nd birthday, with a rebuilt body and a revamped mindset.

“I’m excited to return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge,” he said Monday in a release. “Albany is the perfect setting and it will be great to join this outstanding field.”

But the question remains: will this time be any different than the last?

Keep in mind, this entire string of events, the sheer idea of Woods hitting a competitive shot before 2018, seemed rather preposterous only a month ago. It was at the Presidents Cup that Woods entertained the notion that he might never play competitive golf again, much to the surprise of the media gathered in the shadow of Lady Liberty.

“I don’t know what my future holds for me,” Woods said on Sept. 27. “As I’ve told you guys, I’m hitting 60-yard shots.”

My, how things can escalate. In the span of a few short weeks, Woods went from hitting pitches to full shots on the range to drivers on the course and his patented stinger.

A brimming arsenal was showcased – and quickly, at that – leading many to suddenly realize that the Hero, which had purposefully held back two open spots when announcing the majority of its 18-player field, was still in play.

Granted, this rapid renaissance flies in the face of Woods’ other recent comments about easing back into things. That was also the goal a year ago, when he ended a 15-month hiatus in his Bahamian alcove after patiently biding his time, only to see a well-crafted comeback attempt crumble after only seven rounds.

“I don’t know what 100 percent means after eight surgeries, but I’ll try and get as close as I can to that number,” Woods said last month. “But as I said, we just take it one step at a time. It’s a process, and I’m in no hurry.”

Perhaps the calendar sped things along, given that his next plausible playing opportunity wouldn't be until late January. Or maybe Woods was simply overcome with giddiness after cranking out a handful of swings without flinching in pain for the first time in months, if not years.

Don’t discount the allure of making his much-anticipated return in the highly-controlled environment of Albany. With an 18-man field, unofficial stakes, sparse crowds, limited media and a forgiving course with which he’s familiar, there are plenty of reasons to circle this particular week, even if he seems to be progressing ahead of any discernible schedule.

To his credit, Woods appears to have used his time away from the game to turn over a new, self-deprecating leaf. He grinned his way around Liberty National as an assistant captain and displayed a level of self-awareness with his “return of the stinger” tweet last week that would have seemed out of place a decade ago.

Even Monday’s announcement included a reference to the “committee of 1” which granted Woods, the tournament host, an exemption specifically reserved for the tournament host.

The thought of a largely healthy Woods returning to action is tantalizing enough, but for that same player to be willing to have a little fun while trying to keep up with players half his age? The internet has combusted over less.

Granted, there are still far more questions than answers as to the state of Woods’ game. His lumbar fusion surgery in April, the fourth procedure in recent years aimed at healing his ailing lower back, was by all accounts his most invasive surgery to date. Its impact on his flexibility and swing arc over the course of 18 holes, let alone 72, remain to be seen.

And by Woods’ own account, he wasn’t doing anything “golf-related” until a few weeks ago, and only earlier this month did he receive clearance from his surgeon to resume full golf activities. The situation is a far cry from last year, when he slowly but surely ramped his game back into playing shape only to find that it was decidedly rough around the edges.

But if nothing else, Woods’ comments last month served the purpose of flattening any lingering expectations. Each accurate drive, flushed iron and holed birdie putt from here on out will feel like a bonus given the state of Woods’ game, or lack thereof, for much of the year.

At this point, Woods’ much-heralded return doesn’t extend beyond a few low-key rounds along the Bahamian coast. After the misfire that followed last year’s appearance, there are no certainties about how his body will respond at Albany, or in the weeks that follow.

Four years removed from his last healthy season, nine months since limping away from Dubai and again tasked with rehabbing a surgically-repaired body, Woods won’t begin this latest comeback equipped with any guarantees.

But his latest announcement shows that he’s still willing to give it another shot.

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Tiger can't commit, goes OB on 16: 'That’s on me'

By Will GrayMarch 18, 2018, 11:05 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Standing on the 16th tee with the leaders in sight and the roars of the crowd still ringing in his ears, Tiger Woods contemplated three different options for his most critical tee shot of the week.

He couldn’t decide on any of them, and as a result deposited his chances of winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational into a backyard adjacent to the fairway.

Woods was only one shot back through 15 holes, but with the leaders well behind him on the course he knew he needed at least a birdie on the par-5 16th to keep pace. Instead, he pulled his tee shot left and out of bounds, leading to an untimely and costly bogey on the easiest hole on the course.

“I was caught,” Woods said. “I couldn’t decide what I was going to do.”

In Woods’ mind, he had three options: “fit” a driver left to right with the shape of the fairway, “bomb it over the top” of the dogleg or just hit a 3-wood “straight away.” He opted for the driver, but after missing right the first three days he sent his ball sailing left.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

“I bailed out and hit a bad shot,” Woods said. “And that’s on me for not committing.”

Woods went on to bogey the next hole, but after a par save on No. 18 he finished the week in a tie for fifth at 10 under for his third straight top-12 finish. Given the sizzling close of Rory McIlroy, an eagle on 16 likely would have still left him looking up at the Ulsterman on the leaderboard.

“Even though I got up there, I just knew I needed to keep making birdies,” Woods said. “Those guys had so many holes behind me, where I just birdied the same holes and so if they made birdie on those holes, I would have to keep going. I got to 16, I figure I’ve got to play the last three holes in 3 under to have a chance and probably force a playoff. And maybe that wouldn’t have been good enough the way Rory is playing back there.”

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McIlroy (64) storms to Arnold Palmer victory

By Nick MentaMarch 18, 2018, 10:48 pm

Rory McIlroy fired a bogey-free, final-round 64, birdied the 72nd hole in Tiger-esque fashion and stormed to a three-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Here’s how Rory ended his winless drought, and how the aforementioned Woods made a Sunday charge before collapsing late:

Leaderboard: McIlroy (-18), Bryson DeChambeau (-15), Justin Rose (-14), Henrik Stenson (-13), Woods (-10), Ryan Moore (-10)

What it means: This is McIlroy’s 14th PGA Tour victory and his first worldwide win since Sept. 25th, 2016. That was the day he walked away from East Lake with both the Tour Championship and the FedExCup. It was also the day Arnold Palmer passed away at the age of 87. With the win, McIlroy reasserts himself as a force following a winless 2017 in which he was plagued by a nagging rib injury. The four-time major winner will make one more start at next week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and then make his way to Augusta National, where he looks to complete the career Grand Slam.

Round of the day: Two back to start the final round, McIlroy made his eight birdies in bunches. He circled three of his last four holes on the front nine – Nos. 6, 7 and 9 – to make the turn in 3-under 33 and work his way into the mix. Following three pars at 10-12, he caught fire, ripping off five birdies in his final six holes. He took the outright lead at 14, chipped in at 15, and sealed the deal at 18.

Best of the rest: DeChambeau made McIlroy earn it, cutting the lead to just one when he eagled the 16th hole as McIlroy was walking to the final tee. A par at 17 and a bogey at 18 netted him 68 and solo second.

Big disappointment: This is Stenson’s fourth top-five finish at this event in the last six years. The overnight leader by one, he went 71-71 over the weekend and bogeyed 18 to finish fourth.

Biggest disappointment: Woods made a vintage Sunday charge at Bay Hill before bogeying two of his final three holes and settling for a final-round 69 and a tie for fifth.The eight-time API winner was minus-5 on the day and just one off the lead when he sniped his tee shot at the par-5 16th out of bounds to the left. He bogeyed both 16 and 17 before making a scrambling par at 18 to finish the week 10 under par.

Shot of the day: McIlroy’s birdie putt at 18.

Remind you of anything?

Quote of the day: "It means a lot. You know, the last time I won a PGA Tour event was the day Mr. Palmer passed away, so it's a little bit ironic that I come here and win. He set a great example for all of us players to try and follow in his footsteps. If everyone on Tour could handle themselves the way Arnie did, the game of golf would be in a better place. ... To be able to win his event, I wish I walked up that hill and got a handshake from him but I'm so happy to my name on that trophy." - McIlroy

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TT postscript: Masters hype builds after final-round charge

By Tiger TrackerMarch 18, 2018, 10:36 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Here are some thoughts from walking one last loop alongside Tiger Woods on another steamy afternoon at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

• What might have been. Woods transformed Bay Hill into an absolutely electric atmosphere when he started the back nine with three birdies in four holes to get within a shot of the lead. Dressed in his traditional red and black, it was a second straight Sunday where we were treated to watching him try to catch the leaders down the stretch.

• But the momentum he had built up disappeared with a single tee shot, as Woods pulled his drive on the par-5 16th out of bounds and into someone’s backyard. His chances for a ninth tournament title were effectively ended with one errant swing, as he bogeyed the easiest hole on the course and then bogeyed the next for good measure.

• While the closing stretch was disappointing, it was still another remarkable week for Woods considering where his game stood a month ago. His 3-under 69 in the final round lifted him to 10 under for the week, and he ended up in a tie for fifth. He’s now on the cusp of the top 100 in the world rankings, and he’ll head to the Masters on the heels of three straight top-12 finishes for the first time since 2008.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

• It didn’t take long after his final putt dropped for Augusta National to become a topic of conversation. Woods has played only once since 2014, and he plans to make a return trip before the season’s first major to re-acclimate himself with the course and make sure his yardage book “is still good.”

• Taking the long view on things, Woods was all smiles about his comeback that remains a work in progress. “If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments,” Woods said, “I would have taken that in a heartbeat.”

After going T-2 and T-5 in this latest fortnight, Woods will now have two weeks off before he tees it up for a chance to win his fourth green jacket, his first major since 2008 and his first tournament anywhere since 2013. Can. Not. Wait.

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Highlights: Tiger (69) makes charge, collapses

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 18, 2018, 9:45 pm

Tiger Woods made a vintage Sunday charge at Bay Hill before bogeying two of his final three holes and settling for a final-round 69 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The eight-time API winner was 5 under on the day and just one off the lead when he sniped his tee shot at the par-5 16th out of bounds to the left. He bogeyed both 16 and 17 before making a scrambling par at 18 to finish the week 10 under par, in a tie for fifth.

"I didn't commit to it," Woods said of his drive at 16, where he attempted to fly his ball over the fairway bunkers, rather than hitting a cut or laying back. "And that's on me for not committing."

Starting five off the lead, Tiger got rolling with with a laced 2-iron and a par at No. 1.

Woods hit the green at the par-3 second but left himself a 50-foot birdie putt and a 6-footer to save par, which he walked in.

A two-putt 4 at the par-5 fourth gave Woods his first birdie of the day and moved him to 8 under for the week. Apparently energized, Tiger pulled driver at the short par-4 fifth and unleashed this violent swing.

A pitch from the thick rough hit a sprinkler head and stopped on the apron, leading to this birdie try, which fortunately hit the pin but unfortunately didn't fall.

Looking to pick up another stroke - or two - at the par-5 sixth, Woods took his drive 317 yards over the water and hit this second shot from 227 yards to 13 feet, leading to another two-putt birdie when his eagle try burned the right edge.

Returning to his trusty 2-iron, Tiger found the fairway at the par-4 eighth and then threw this dart from 176 yards to 6 feet and rolled in his third birdie putt of the day to move to 10 under.

His momentum was slowed by his first bogey of the day at No. 9, the product of an errant drive and its ensuing complications. As a result, Woods made the turn 2 under on his round, 9 under for the week, and still five off the lead, like when he started the day.

But Woods wouldn't wait long to make up for his mistake, immediately responding with another flagged iron and birdie at No. 10.

He continued his assault on Bay Hill's par-5s at the 12th, getting up and down from the sand for a birdie-4 that moved him to 11 under par, just two off the lead.

This roll at 13 giving him his third birdie in four holes, and the charge was officially on, as Woods was suddenly just a shot back.

Just when it looked like Woods was primed for a late run at his 80th PGA Tour victory, Woods stepped to the tee at the par-5 16th, where he had missed wide right three days in a row, and ripped his drive out of bounds into a backyard miles left.

He made 4 on his second ball for a bogey-6 and dropped another shot at the par-3 17th, ending his chances.