NASSAU, Bahamas – For the first time in 301 days, Tiger Woods played a competitive round of golf, with plenty of positives to take away as well as the understandable negatives that leave room for improvement.
His 3-under-par 69 in the first round of the Hero World Challenge was his first score in the 60s since playing in this tournament a year ago, and left him just three strokes behind tournament leader Tommy Fleetwood and in a tie for eighth.
And lest anyone think Woods wasn’t looking at the scoreboard. . .
“It’s was not only nice to get that first round out of the way, but I’m only three shots out of the lead,” Woods said.
Woods himself admitted earlier in the week that the final standings do not matter much this week, especially after a fourth back surgery in April, a DUI arrest that stemmed from pain medications in May and then a rehab stint to try and get that under control.
The spinal fusion surgery meant Woods had to wait six months to take full swings, and did not get back to hitting balls in earnest until mid-October, just six weeks ago.
So hitting 7 out of 13 fairways, 12 out of 18 greens and needing 28 putts was a solid performance, even on a relatively benign Albany Golf Club course that saw 15 of the 18 players break par.
“I was very happy I found the rhythm of the round by the second hole,” said Woods, who made five birdies and two bogeys. “After I hit that 8-iron in there pin high (on the par-3 second), I felt I’ve got the rhythm. On 3, I smashed a drive down there and then hit a 2-iron about 265 into the wind, I just hit it on a rope, put it up there on the green. I knew I was back playing again.
“Woods turned that into his first birdie of the day, and a hole later he had his first fist pump after holing a 15-footer for par that was a result of a chunked chip.
The 14-time major champion would do that on the ninth hole – leading to his first dropped expletive of the day – and resulting in a bogey where he was thinking birdie. Woods played the front nine in 35, then birdied the 10th, 13th and 14th holes before his lone wayward drive of the day at the 15th.
He had to take an unplayable lie on the par-5 hole, leading to his second bogey. Both of his over-par scores came on par-5s, which he played in 1 over, clearly an aspect of his game that he will need to improve.
Woods also had some chipping problems, although it doesn’t appear related to his 2015 struggles in the regard. Several players cited the difficulty of chipping on the tight fairways at Albany.
He admitted that was “frustrating because I have a hard time with this into-the-grain, ball sitting down. I have to hit the ball high. I’m used to using the bounce and hitting behind it a little bit and getting it up, but (the grass is) so sticky and that’s really hard to do. I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
Woods narrowly missed chipping in for a birdie at the 17th, and then after missing the green at the 18th in an area where the ball came close to the collar of rough, he knocked a chip several feet by the hole, but saved par with a putt to keep his score in the 60s.
“It felt great because I don’t want to lose shots,” he said. “I haven’t played in a very long time and I can’t afford to go out there and make a bunch of bogeys and know that can make 9, 10 birdies and offset them.
“These guys have been playing all year, they’ve been playing well, and if they make a few bogeys, who cares, they can make seven or eight birdies a day, especially on a golf course like this.”
Woods played with PGA Tour player of the year Justin Thomas, who won five times during the past season and again this fall. The two have played several rounds near their homes in South Florida, but this was the first time they had ever played in a tournament.
“I felt rusty starting after a month and half (off) so I can’t imagine what it felt like for him,” said Thomas, who also shot 69. “He played well. I truly felt like he was going to play well just from when we played and then practice around here.”
Perhaps the biggest positives were the way Woods drove the ball and his ability to make a few clutch putts. Woods hit several drives over 300 yards, nipping the long-hitting Thomas in the process. His only wayward tee shot came at the par-5 15th, where Woods appeared to swing too hard, losing the shot to the right and having to take an unplayable lie.
“He looks really strong,” said Hall of Famer Ernie Els, the designer of Albany who was on hand to watch the first round. “He’s healthy again and his swing looks great. I also feel that his intensity is great, too. So there are a lot of positives.”
“The big thing though coming off a long break like Tiger has had is the feel. It is great playing with your buddies back home but there is a different feeling going through his body.”
Woods, 41, is ranked 1,199th in the world as he is making just his 20th worldwide start since the first of his four back surgeries in 2014. Last year, he returned to this same tournament at Albany Golf Club after a 15-month layoff and finished 15th out of 17 players.
The 18-player field boasts eight of the top 10 players in the world, including No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, who shot 68 and is tied for fourth with Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Kevin Chappel. Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler are tied for second at shooting 67, a shot behind Fleetwood.