For his sake and theirs, peers want the Tiger of old

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NASSAU, Bahamas – As Tiger Woods exited the scoring tent after completing his final round at the Hero World Challenge, he was quickly whisked next door to a makeshift stage a few feet away. There, nearly every credentialed media member that made the trek to Albany stood waiting, eager to pepper the man who was in front of them dressed in red and black for the first time in seemingly ages.

As Woods answered a wide range of queries, the group behind him quietly finished the 18th hole and strode to scoring with minimal fanfare. It was a twosome that included Jordan Spieth, someone for whom the media has many times stood waiting.

But in a week when Woods finally ended his competitive drought, if you weren’t the tournament host, you were playing second fiddle.

It’s a blunt assessment, and one that Spieth validated minutes later when the microphones finally turned in his direction.

“Tiger moves the needle,” Spieth said.

There was no shortage of interested parties who left the Bahamas pleased with the start of Woods’ comeback, from those within his camp to fans and television executives alike. But there was an unmistakable vibe throughout the week at Albany, whether walking the range or on the course, that Woods’ peers are genuinely excited to have him again inside the ropes.

“I don’t care what the score is, we want our champion back,” Bubba Watson said. “We want our Tiger Woods back, we want Tiger back. We want him playing again.”

Part of that sentiment is a nod to the opportunities created by the greatest player of their generation. Many acknowledged the fact that without Woods’ impact and influence, this week’s lucrative exhibition at a luxurious island outpost wouldn’t even exist.

But there is also a secondary motivation, especially for some of the game’s youngest stars for whom Woods has been more idol than adversary.

Spieth’s Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013 coincided with Woods’ last great season, one in which he won five times including The Players Championship. But Spieth never played alongside Woods during any of those five weeks, and the notion of seeing Woods at the top of his game is one that the 23-year-old has read about more often than he’s seen it with his own eyes.

In team sports, an upset win is always relished a bit more when the opponent is at the top of his game. No one celebrated beating Woods this week at Albany, but many salivated over the notion that they might soon be able to stand toe-to-toe with a full-strength Woods and take their chances.

“That’s why we got into this, not to play for second but to have a chance to take down the top, couple greatest to ever play the game. Call him tied for first, call him whatever you want,” Spieth said. “Even if it’s Tiger’s tournament next year, or it’s a major championship, we can say, ‘I battled Tiger when we felt like he was really on, and I was able to get the breaks and pull it off.’ That’s something you can tell your grandkids.”

The allure of duplicating Y.E. Yang’s takedown of Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship remains strong, and it was even a specific example cited early in the week by Spieth, who was just 16 years old when Woods lost a 54-hole lead at a major for the first and only time in his career.

The innate, competitive drive in the world’s best players seeks a worthy adversary; the confidence that propelled them to the top of the game fuels their belief that they would also come out on top.

“I still want to beat him,” said Patrick Reed before playing alongside Woods in the first round. “Tiger still wants to beat me. It’s just like everybody out here.”

For his part, Woods seems just as eager to give them a chance to earn their own stripes in the near future. He spoke early and often about the joy he derived simply from being back in the arena after 15 months of rehab and recovery in relative isolation.

“It feels good to be back out here playing again, competing and trying to beat these, the best players in the world,” he said. “I love it. I missed it.”

With 72 healthy holes now under his belt, Woods appears ready to take the next step in his long journey back. It’s one that his fellow Tour pros hope continues without further delay, as Woods still represents the largest tide available to lift all boats.

And after months of wait and speculation, they now believe they’re one step closer to a scenario so many envisioned on practice greens and driving ranges over the years: standing across from Woods, strength against strength, with the tournament on the line.

But if asked to offer a few words of advice, scores of Woods’ former foes might well sing out in unison: be careful what you wish for.