NASSAU, Bahamas – For a brief instant, it appeared that Tiger Woods had spent the last 15 months quietly cobbling together some sort of Bahamian time machine.
The irons were accurate, the chips were crisp. The birdie putts fell – first one, then another, then another.
This was not the hobbled shell of a man that flashed across TV sets so often in recent years. This was Tiger Woods, walking with an extra spring in his step as he climbed the leaderboard at the Hero World Challenge.
But fairytales are rarely authored inside the ropes, and Woods quickly returned to Earth, as he eventually showed signs of a man whose last competitive rep came nearly 16 months ago.
The score, a 1-over 73, was not a shock, but the route was certainly a circuitous one. Woods dazzled on the front nine and leaked oil on the back, closing with double bogeys on two of the last three holes that left him ahead of exactly one player in the 18-man field.
It was rocky, and it was tumultuous. But it was a start.
“When he hit it well, it was really, really good,” said playing partner Patrick Reed. “And when he mis-hit it, it was kind of, you know, they weren’t very good misses.”
Such is the plight of a man attempting to resurrect his game from scratch after the longest hiatus of his career.
Woods admitted after the round that Thursday’s opener was different, all the way down to tweaking his practice routine to accommodate an unexpected jolt of adrenaline. For a player who has conquered the golfing world several times over, the first of four rounds in a secluded alcove may as well have been a trip down Magnolia Lane.
“You can’t simulate the surge of adrenaline that you’re going to be feeling come tournament time,” Woods said. “I’ve tried, and I have always tried my entire career to do that, but it’s never the same. And today was definitely that.”
Had Woods more evenly dispersed his scorecard, had one of his closing doubles instead come amid the three-birdie run that highlighted his opening nine, perhaps the tinge of disappointment might have evaporated. But he didn’t, and they didn’t, and a 73 is more difficult to stomach after Woods appeared on his way to something in the mid-60s.
For once in his career, though, Woods’ focus is spanning wider than a scorecard or leaderboard. This event is about laying the groundwork, taking one small step with a much larger sprint in mind.
The bigger isn't lost on the tournament host, who remained upbeat despite a rough finish that may have sent him slamming a door earlier in his career.
“Well, think about it, I hit the ball in three bushes and a water ball today. It could have been something really good,” Woods said. “I got off to a nice solid start and made a few mistakes there. I didn't play the par 5s very well in the middle part of the round and consequently got it going the wrong way.”
There were certainly more than a few shots that got away. Woods fought a left miss all day off the tee with his new TaylorMade driver, and then there were the aforementioned scrub-bush shots. The first time he punched out, the second time he took an unplayable and the third time he played a shot 20 yards backwards down the fairway.
“I just made some really, if you look at it, some really silly mistakes,” he said. “Mistakes I don’t normally make, but I haven’t played in a while.”
Woods’ downright sunny demeanor indicated that he was fully aware of the other part of that equation: there was also plenty offered early in the round upon which he can build.
If there was a single aspect of his game under the most scrutiny entering the week, it was likely the chipping and pitching that so publicly torpedoed him last year. But his short game was largely on point, with several chips of varying length nestling within a few feet of the hole.
He also hit several pin-seeking approaches, stuffing a wedge on the seventh before hitting it inside 4 feet on the 216-yard eighth hole.
“By the time I hit the second, my tee shot on the second hole, I had already gotten into the flow of the round,” Woods said. “It’s good to be able to not play in, what, 15-16 months and to get it on the second hole is nice.”
The score, especially given the start, wasn’t what he hoped for. But this comeback will require more than four rounds against a small field, and it certainly is not a gap Woods can bridge with any single 18-hole performance.
But for that front-nine stretch, Woods appeared once more in control of his game with the world watching – a sight that some surmised we might never see again.
That, in and of itself, might be enough to qualify Thursday’s opener as a success. At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.