NASSAU, Bahamas – After getting off to a reasonable start for the second straight day at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods encountered a quandary.
His tee shot on the par-3 eighth hole ended up in a waste area, the type of coarse, shelly sand that masquerades as a cart path at Albany Golf Club. His stance was impeded by a scrub bush, and he had a long carry to the hole with the green quickly running in the opposite direction.
What followed was a display of deft touch, a carefully crafted splash that landed off the green but nestled close to the hole. Two members of the gallery were still scooping up sand from where he hit the shot and placing it into plastic bags to commemorate the occasion when Woods rolled in his par putt.
He emphatically snagged the ball out of the hole, then turned to caddie Joe LaCava and said simply, “I’m not dropping a shot.”
The declaration was vintage Woods. The fact that he followed through on the promise shows that version may be more than just a distant memory.
If Woods offered reason for optimism in his first competitive round in nearly 16 months, his bogey-free 65 in the second round may as well have included measurements for a fifth green jacket. Woods appeared in control from the start, shaping shots and rolling in putts to the delight of the sparse crowds gathered in this secluded island alcove.
“Yesterday was a lot to build on. Through eight holes I had it, I lost it,” Woods said. “I made some silly mistakes there and bogeyed two par-5s. Today I did not do that. I turned those holes around, and consequently the momentum, the feel of the entire round changes.”
The day got off to a curious start when Woods’ scheduled playing partner, Justin Rose, withdrew with a back injury. That left the tournament host in the awkward position of going out alone in the first group of the day, looking up in the standings at the other 16 players in the field.
But the 11th-hour audible may have been a blessing in disguise for Woods, who was able to go out without distraction or delay and feast on a course with smooth greens whose lone defense failed to show up.
“If the wind was blowing more, I was going to have (Albany head pro Damian Michelmore) play (as a marker),” Woods said. “But with the wind down I figured I could just go out there and just play it solo.”
Woods did just that, starting with a clinical birdie after bombing his drive on the opening hole and adding two more before making the turn. His issues off the tee were largely reduced, his iron approaches often found the target and his short game remained on point.
When Woods managed to convert a 20-foot par save on the 16th hole after escaping more scrub bush danger, it elicited a quick walk and fist pump that harkened back to the glory days. He may have been playing alone in an unofficial event, but Woods’ legendary focus allowed him to create a pressure-packed environment that he hopes will accelerate his return to form.
“I wanted to keep the card clean,” Woods said. “Somehow, I don’t know what it is about playing and competing, but keeping cards clean, there’s something really special and it feels pretty good doing that.”
Stepping to the microphone after the round, Woods recounted the physical toll his 40-year-old physique has taken: four knee surgeries, three on the back, with plenty of rehab in between. “My body’s been through it,” he admitted.
He noted that while he once ran 30 miles per week early in his Tour career, those days are long gone.
“There’s no way in hell I’m doing that now,” he joked.
Woods doesn’t pound the weight room like he once did, and while he has been looking back on his form as a junior for inspiration in recreating his swing, he realizes that he’ll never again have the supple flexibility of the young star in those photos and videos.
But therein lies perhaps the biggest reason for optimism as Woods looks to 2017 and beyond.
A low score and a bogey-free card are all well and good. But the Hero World Challenge does not a major make, as Woods’ admittedly strong performance still came on a course he knows well and one that offered little resistance in calm conditions.
The hope, though, is that this time might be different. That this time the biggest competitor the game has ever seen can take his foot off the gas and ease his way back into things.
It’s a test he has failed in the past. Too many times the draw of his former mindset and tactics proved too alluring, and his body broke down while trying to turn back the clock.
But Woods’ post-round candor displayed a level of reflection and self-awareness that should hearten golf fans near and far. Because while the show he put on Friday in the Bahamas was dazzling at times, the comeback trail from this point must be a smooth and steady one.
If Woods has actually come to embrace that notion, then there could be many more bogey-free 65s in his future.