NASSAU, Bahamas – Beyond the fist pumps and the club twirls, past the booming drives and approach shots that left you weak in the knees, Tiger Woods has always had one tool at his disposal that gave him a leg up over any field.
It wasn’t a swing technique, or even a physical advantage. Instead, it was something that Woods took only two seconds to identify Saturday when asked about the biggest strength of his game through three rounds at the Hero World Challenge.
“My mind,” he said. “Always has been.”
There are many adjectives to describe Woods’ prowess over the last two decades, but one that is perhaps underutilized is cerebral. Seemingly from youth, he has been a creature that wholly and willfully operated within his own sphere.
It was a tendency that took him to unprecedented heights, one that allowed him to crush competitors. More recently, though, it became counterproductive: Woods spent the last three years relying on his innate drive to power a body that simply couldn’t hold up.
But this time, as he continues to chart a course on his most important comeback, the space between his ears could hold the key to a potential return to glory.
For the third day in a row, Woods checked off several boxes that showed he is ready once again to compete against the game’s best. He opened with three straight birdies. He added a hole-out bunker shot that thrilled the handful of spectators who made the trek out to Albany Golf Club, and he rolled in putt after putt with the Scotty Cameron that may never again leave his clutches.
Some of that regression can be chalked up to physical fatigue; some can be attributed to overall rust. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. No one, including Woods, is going to catch Hideki Matsuyama this week, and a third-place finish won’t be materially different for Woods than the 10th-place position he currently occupies.
What does matter, though, is how he feels. How he reacts. How he internalizes and assesses these first few competitive strokes that at one point seemed like they might never happen.
That’s where the mind kicks in, and that’s where Woods is showing that this time might be different.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t really have much [expectations] because I didn’t know,” Woods said. “I hadn’t played in a very long time and I didn’t know what it was going to feel like after each round.”
When was the last time you heard Woods approach anything – from a round of golf to a game of soccer in the backyard against his kids – without expectations?
Make no mistake, this is a different Tiger Woods than the man who limped off into the abyss at the 2015 Wyndham Championship. Woods spent his warm-up session cracking jokes with caddie Joe LaCava and John Wood, who loops for Matt Kuchar. He chatted throughout the round with Rickie Fowler, each needling the other at different points, and his mood barely dampened after he doubled No. 18 for the second time this week.
“I’m very pleased to be back and to be able to compete at this level again. It’s been a very, very difficult road,” he said. “You guys were all here last year and I did not feel very good. I was really, really struggling and I struggled for a very long time. Worked with my physios and had to be very patient and finally was able to start building, and here we are.”
Woods made his mark for years as being perhaps the fieriest competitor the game has ever known. But he appears finally ready to take a tactical approach to his return, building from one piece to the next.
It’s not a mission he can fulfill with any single result in the Bahamas, so why sweat a three-putt or a rinsed approach?
After his round, Woods went up into the television tower and a remarkable scene broke out that further shed light on his mindset. Woods sat with host Dan Hicks and analyst David Feherty and he, well, actually appeared to be having a good time. There were laughs, and jokes, and a few more laughs on top of that.
After living in isolation for 15 months, Woods is clearly relishing just being back. The sights, the sounds of competition – even one as unique as a 17-man event on an island – appear to have rejuvenated him.
“[LaCava] and I tried to simulate tournament golf, but there’s nothing quite the same as playing, and the waiting, and the grinding, and the wind, and getting the numbers right and camera phones going off and people moving, sounds,” he said. “These are all different things you can’t simulate at home.”
Some of Woods’ physical skills will return in time. Some, as he nears age 41, will never be seen again.
But the mind – that’s an unwavering mainstay. It’s an asset Woods has used to his advantage for years, and he seems eager to lean on it once again to fuel a comeback that still seems very much on track.