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Woods offers a peek into the past

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NASSAU, Bahamas – Although normally understated, add Patrick Reed to a growing list of PGA Tour types who see this most recent version of Tiger Woods in a different light. They’ve seen the 14-time major champion struggle with injury and pedestrian play. They’ve seen him look human. They’ve seen how time can rob even the most dynamic athlete of an era.

Reed got an early glimpse of what may await the world this week at the Hero World Challenge on Monday at Albany, a Tiger who is if not completely healthy, at least a full step removed from the MRI machine.

“He looked excited, excited to be playing golf. I was shocked how fluid his swing looked and how far the golf ball was going,” Reed said. “He’s always been a little longer than me, but some of those drives today he got out there.”

Length, check.

That’s been the ongoing narrative since Woods began his slow climb back to competitive relevance. First, Rickie Fowler suggested Tiger was hitting it by him during practice rounds and then accounts surfaced from Woods’ round with President Donald Trump and Dustin Johnson last Friday that he was outpacing the world No. 1 off the tee.

Reed, however, offered a slightly more nuanced, albeit golf geeky, take.

“He was hitting flight-ed, flat cuts, high cuts, low draws, high, just soft draws, moving it both ways with his driver,” Reed said. “If he starts getting command of that and feeling good, we’re going to have some fun.”

Fun can be relative, and it’s safe to say those halcyon days weren’t all that fun for anyone not named Tiger. In his prime, Woods converted 93 percent of his 54-hole leads/co-leads – by comparison Jack Nicklaus converted 60 percent of the time when leading after three rounds – and he’s spent 683 weeks as world No. 1. Everyone else has a combined 384 weeks atop the world ranking since 1997.

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But this isn’t that guy. This guy has endured four back procedures and 41 hard years in a relentless pursuit of perfection.

Even Woods acknowledged the miles he’s compiled on his frame when asked on Sunday if he views this most recent comeback any differently than he did all of the others.

“I’m going to be 42 here soon. It’s over-use syndrome,” Woods said. “I’ve been playing tournament golf for 37 years, so I’ve hit a lot of golf balls. There are certain areas of my body that are worn out.”

Given that framework, the man Reed, et al. grew up idolizing probably isn’t going to walk to the first tee on Thursday at Albany. But there is another option, as Reed sees it.

“In his prime, not only did he beat people physically with how he played, he destroyed the guys he was playing mentally,” Reed said. “Now, that has gone away. All of us, we got to know Tiger when he was going through these injuries and struggling, health-wise.”

After so many false starts in his career following injury, it’s hard to say this time will be different. From Woods’ perspective, the quality-of-life element of being pain-free is evident. The last two days he’s played relaxed and loose and, yes, even happy.

Combine that with the emerging notion that with his health has come a renewed focus and fitness, and this time legitimate hope seems to be keeping pace with the hype.

But then it was a similar story last year at the Hero World Challenge when Woods found himself poised for another comeback from injury.

Reed was paired with Woods for Round 1 in Albany last December.

“He was just demolishing me and I thought I was playing against 2000 Tiger,” Reed said. “It seemed like he had complete control and then I flipped it and beat him on the back nine and beat him overall for the day by one.”

After finishing 15th at Albany, an 18-man field, Woods would play just three more rounds, two at the Farmers Insurance Open and one at the Dubai Desert Classic, before heading back to his surgeon.

On Sunday, Woods was cautiously optimistic that this most recent return could be successful after so many failures.

“It could be the next step, I just don’t know and that’s tough to live with. It’s been a struggle for years,” Woods said. “To finally come out on the good side of it, it’s exciting. I am stiffer, I’m fused. But I don’t have the pain and if I don’t have the pain life is so much better.”

Perched behind the ninth green at Albany, Reed considered what he’d just seen following his nine-hole practice round with Woods. The man who wears red and black on Sundays to honor Tiger has always considered the timing of his career a bit unfortunate.

Like many in his generation, they just missed the best of Tiger, so any glimmer of hope – like, say, an impressive practice round on a breezy island morning – is a reason to consider what could be.

“With what I saw today, he’ll be rusty no matter who you are, he’ll figure it out at some point and when he does I’ll be waiting,” Reed smiled. “I’d love to be able to turn back time and be able to pop out in ’99 through 2001 Tiger. Growing up watching it, I’d love to be able to actually play against it and compete against it.”

Those of Woods’ generation would probably warn Reed to be careful what you wish for.