NASSAU, Bahamas – At this time a year ago, Tiger Woods feared he’d never play golf again and be able to play with his two children. At times he needed help to get out of bed due to his near crippling back, was in pain most of the time either standing or sitting, and could barely swing a golf club.
In a grim press conference ahead of the Hero World Challenge on Dec. 1, Woods talked in dire tones about his future, saying there was no timetable for his return, that everything he accomplished in golf beyond that point would be “gravy,” and he wondered, “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?”
Now he sees the sun on the horizon – and is chasing it.
“It's a lot better situation this year than last,” Woods said Tuesday at the Hero World Challenge at Albany Golf Club. “I love (Matt Kuchar) to death, but I can't stand watching him in the cart anymore. After last year and the Ryder Cup, that's enough. Now I need to play against him.”
He’ll do just that starting Thursday as he returns to competitive golf for the first time since he tied for 10th in the 2015 Wyndham Championship. Woods and Kuchar are two of the 18 players in the star-studded field which also features reigning U.S. Open champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year Dustin Johnson, Champion Golfer of the Year Henrik Stenson, PGA champion Jimmy Walker and Jordan Spieth.
“To get back out here at this level has been a challenge,” Woods said. “A lot of hard work, an extreme inordinate amount of patience, which as you all know is not exactly one of my hallmarks. So I've had to exercise that more so than usual, but it's allowed me to get to this point where I'm able to compete.”
Woods said earlier this week he has his speed back, his strength and power has returned and his cache of shots is full. But the winner of 79 PGA Tour titles and 14 majors knows he’s up against it this week. Which is understandable considering the talent he faces, the rust he hopes to dust off quickly and the winning score of 25 under defending champion Bubba Watson posted last year, a score that could be duplicated this year if the wind doesn’t howl.
“I'm going to try to do the same thing I always do. I'm entered in an event, I'm going to try to win this thing,” said Woods, who has won this tournament five times. “I know Bubba went low, shot 25 under. That's going to be a tall order. I haven't played in a while. Shooting 25 under is going to be a little hard, but hey, I'm going to give it my best.
“I'm going to be focused, I'm going to do what I can do and put the ball in the correct spots, give myself looks and try to bury these putts, post scores and get myself in that mix come Sunday afternoon.
“I know that's a tall order since I've been away from the game for so long and I've made a lot of different changes in my game, but the mindset's still the same. That is to go out there and try to beat these guys.”
The time away from the game gave Woods time to retool his life while trying to realign his back. Woods said he laid out Phase 2 of his life as he consolidated all his brands into the new TGR umbrella cooperation that encompasses his foundation, golf design business and other business interests and aspirations.
The time on the shelf also meant more time at home with his daughter, Sam, 9, and son, Charlie, 7, which meant more to him than anything.
And as he slowly healed, any talk of retirement faded away. And golf inches toward the forefront of his mind.
“I call it Phase 2 because I can't play this game forever at a competitive, high level,” he said. “But you can still play golf for a lifetime and I want to play golf for a lifetime, but also I know I can't compete out here for a lifetime. So setting up my business entities is going to take a load off my shoulders in that regard, so that I'm able to devote more time to my golf.”
Woods said he’ll be nervous going to the first tee for the first round and he’s anxious to see what unfolds.
“I would say probably the most I’m concerned about is trying to get a feel for the distance,” Woods said. “I haven't had adrenaline in my system in a while and having that surge of adrenaline through my system, how much further is this ball going to be going? I know it generally is a half a club, but is it going to be more than that because I haven't played, or is it going to be less than that or be about that? Throughout my career I've been pretty good at hitting the ball pin high. I'm concerned about that, what my body's going to be feeling, the energy, the surge of adrenaline going through my system.
“As far as concerns besides that, no. I've got all the clubs that I've tested and I feel pretty confident with. I know that after this event I'm going to do more testing and figure a few more things out, but as of right now I'm ready to go.”