NASSAU, Bahamas – It’s about 150 yards from the first tee at Albany Golf Club to the interview room that abuts the Hero World Challenge media center, basically a straight shot across some hard-packed sand with a quick pivot around the dunes that line the back of the third green.
The path is a short walk, or a stock 9-iron if you prefer the aerial approach. But for Tiger Woods, the two points may as well have been separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Woods was marooned at the dais one year ago, unable to play and barely able to walk. He put on a brave face and tried to point toward the future, but his own self-assessment was as bleak as it had ever been.
He offered some insight at the time, but only in returning a year later has Woods been willing to shed light on just how far he plummeted after consecutive back surgeries left him unable to get out of bed.
“Getting back to this point is beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. The pain issues that I had, it was rough,” Woods said Sunday. “Quite frankly there were some pretty dire times where I just couldn’t move.”
Woods’ candor illustrates just how far he traveled to make it to that first tee box this time around, and the path of rehabilitation and recovery it took to get him there. It also provides proper context for his return to competition after nearly 16 months away, a 15th-place performance that was at times awe-inspiring but still featured plenty of rust.
Yes, there were some loose shots. Woods compounded more than his fair share of errors outside of a bogey-free 65 in the second round, and his closing 76 included a trio of sloppy double bogeys.
But recall that entering the week, Woods’ return was met as much with trepidation as expectation. There were fears that his body might not hold up, or that his short-game woes would return – fears that were heightened after he abruptly withdrew from the Safeway Open a couple months ago. With 72 holes at Albany Golf Club, he effectively put those questions to rest. His chipping, while including an occasional blunder off a tight lie, largely exceeded expectations. His irons were crisp, his drives routinely put him past world-class playing partners and his trusty Scotty Cameron putter helped to steady him on the greens.
A week that was never solely about the numbers on the scorecard gave Woods exactly what he was looking for – hope for 2017 and beyond.
“There were plenty of good shots. There were good things to take away from it, and he made some putts,” Woods' caddie Joe LaCava said. “Honestly, my goal personally was to get him through five rounds on his feet. That doesn’t sound like much, but he hasn’t been doing much of this type of thing. The fact that he feels good after each day, I think that’s great.”
Despite closing his round three times with a double bogey on No. 18, Woods stepped to the microphone each day outside the scoring tent – an area he never reached a year ago – and professed optimism. A man who for two decades thrived by holding himself to the highest standard accurately assessed that this week was never going to be more than the first step in a long journey back.
“I haven’t played; I need to play more tournaments. Zero in 15 months is not a lot. So this is one,” Woods said. “I thought I made some good, positive things happen this week. Made a lot of birdies, also made a lot of mistakes. Those, most of those mistakes I can clean up. I know they’re silly mistakes.”
Woods noted throughout the week that his physical stamina is not quite up to par, and at points during a final-round 76 the burden of hosting and playing in this week’s event appeared to take its toll.
But then Woods talked about his equipment changes, and he analyzed his scheduling options leading into the Masters, and suddenly he had been fast-tracked back to, well, normalcy. It was refreshing, and it was a testament to how much effort it took to traverse the 150 yards or so from injured host to playing competitor.
“It feels good to be back out here playing again, competing and trying to beat ... the best players in the world,” Woods said. “I missed it. I love it.”
Take away the double bogeys, and look past the surprising birdie total that co-led the field. Beyond simply being able to physically perform at an elite level once more, Woods showed emphatically that the fire and competitive drive that has been his compass for 20 years remains very much intact.
Perhaps that, more than any other factor, portends great things in the future. One event does not a comeback make. There will be future setbacks, more struggles as a soon-to-be 41-year-old tries to hang with players nearly half his age.
But from here, the fight is back on. Woods has left the interview room in his rear-view mirror, put his time as figurehead host on hold. After 72 holes in the Bahamas, he’s ready to head to the next first tee, wherever that may be, and that’s all it takes to deem this week a success.