Tiger Woods Is Back. He Brought Some Nerves, but Left the Pain at Home
His competitive future was a question mark last December because his balky back made even a sedentary existence difficult.
“There was a lot of trepidation,” he said, adding, “Not being able to get out of bed, not being able to move, how can I expect to come out here and swing a golf club at 120 miles an hour?”
Woods, a 79-time PGA Tour winner who will turn 41 next month, played his last competitive round on Aug. 23, 2015, at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C. He closed with a 70 to finish tied for 10th. He was scheduled to play in the opening event of the 2016-17 wraparound season last month in Northern California, but he withdrew a few days after committing to play, describing his game as “vulnerable.”
Part of the problem, Woods said, was that two weeks before his scheduled return, he served as an assistant captain for the victorious United States Ryder Cup team and was not able to squeeze in any practice. On top of that, he had not played the host course, Silverado, since his college days at Stanford.
In his storied career, he has entered — and won — tournaments with less preparation, but it has been more than three years since Woods’s last title. Common sense ultimately prevailed where his competitiveness long reigned.
“I felt like I was ready to compete,” Woods said. “But if I’ve waited at the time, what, 13 months, what’s another couple more months? So let’s be patient, a little easier on myself, a little smarter, and let’s come back when things are a little more together.”
For Woods, a 14-time major champion, there can be no easing back into competition. A video taken of Woods’s swing during his practice round Monday was dissected on social media by scores of armchair instructors.
But he will find no lower-key environment than the Albany Golf Club, a luxury resort playground tucked like a pocket square on southwest New Providence Island. Woods, whose net worth is measured in the hundreds of the millions, has a home in the community, as does Justin Rose, who is in the tournament field.
The golf course, a 40-minute drive from downtown, offers the seclusion that only the wealthy few can buy. Woods listed an abundance of privacy and no paparazzi as the main selling points.
“Albany, we have one-tenth of all the billionaires on the planet here, and that’s saying something,” Woods said. “For them to come down here and feel safe and feel like they can be here and operate and run their businesses but also bring their families and enjoy leisure time here as well, and have that privacy, is incredible.”
During the early stages of the tournament, the credentialed crowd following Woods inside the ropes may rival his galleries in size. Between taking photographs of Woods with his smartphone, a security guard assigned to Woods’s detail said he expected the crowds to be small during the first two rounds before picking up on Saturday and Sunday.
Before 9 a.m. Tuesday, Woods was tailed by about three dozen people, including journalists and representatives of his namesake foundation and the tournament’s title sponsor, Hero MotoCorp, an Indian motorcycle and scooter manufacturer. For an hour, Woods posed for photographs on and beside motorcycles and alongside the Hero chief executive, Pawan Munjal, and granted interviews to print and television reporters from India.
He poked fun at his age, stroking his gray-speckled goatee and joking that he was taking hair from his top and putting it on his chin. Like Rip Van Winkle, Woods sounded as if he had awakened from a long slumber when he spoke repeatedly of the bold, futuristic world of technology that he, the child of persimmon woods, is learning to navigate.
Since Woods’s last meaningful round, his main sponsor, Nike, has bowed out of the club-making business. So as part of his comeback, Woods has been trying out different manufacturers’ drivers with adjustable hosels, which have been on the market for several years but are new to him.
“I’m still evolving,” said Woods, who is using his Nike irons, the Scotty Cameron putter that was in his bag during 13 of his 14 major victories and a Bridgestone ball.
His practice partners on Monday included the retired Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, whose first full season in the major leagues came in 1996. That was the same year that a 20-year-old Woods turned pro and an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant made his N.B.A. debut. Of the three, Woods is the only one still competing.
“To see those guys, in those various sports, if you lose a little bit, you’re going to probably be replaced,” Woods said, adding, “But in golf, I can play a different way and get away with it.”
He cited Jim Furyk, 46, who shot a 58 in August. “So it’s possible,” Woods said. “I’m just going to have to find different ways of doing it.”
Standing in Woods’s way is a new guard that has filled the vacuum at the top created by his absence. There are six players in this week’s field in their 20s, led by Jordan Spieth. Since Woods’s last competitive appearance, the six have combined for 14 victories worldwide, with Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama winning their most recent starts.
Woods said his goal this week was the same as it ever was — to win. But given where he was a year ago, it could probably be argued that Woods has pulled off a victory just making it to his starting time.
“Would I like to play a full schedule every year for the next decade-plus?” Woods said. “Yeah, that would be great. Can I? I don’t know. We’ll see.”
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