On Golf: Tiger Woods Relishes the Struggle in an Up-and-Down Return

On Golf: Tiger Woods Relishes the Struggle in an Up-and-Down Return

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NASSAU, Bahamas — Tiger Woods’s return to competitive golf after a 301-day absence concluded on Sunday the way it began, with 18 holes in lock step with the reigning FedEx Cup champion, Justin Thomas.

Woods closed with his third sub-70 score of the week, a 4-under-par 68, the same number posted by Thomas, to tie for ninth at eight-under at the Hero World Challenge. Perhaps fittingly, the runaway winner was a frequent practice partner of Woods’s: Rickie Fowler, who birdied the first seven holes on his way to a scintillating score of 61, a course record. Fowler finished at 18-under, four strokes ahead of the third-round leader, Charley Hoffman, who carded a 72 and finished second.

As was the case last year when he completed 72 holes for the first time in 15 months, Woods expressed optimism Sunday about the state of his health, and his game, moving forward.

His positivity spread some holiday cheer throughout a golf industry that, as evidenced by the PGA Tour’s countdown tweets and the Golf Channel reporters’ breathless commentary, is determined to milk every last drop from its longtime cash cow.

Of course, with Woods, any glad tidings come with a caveat: If his surgically fused back is bothering him, it won’t become apparent until much later. Asked on Sunday if he was in any pain, he said he was not.

But history suggests that even if he was hurting he would not say so. In Dubai in February, Woods appeared to be moving gingerly but said he felt fine physically. The next day he withdrew from the tournament, and a little more than two months later he underwent a fourth back operation.

And Woods didn’t reveal that he was struggling physically at last year’s event until his pretournament interview here on Tuesday. He has always been loath to acknowledge any cracks in his armor, keeping any frailties — physical, mental or psychic — largely to himself. Consider hisarrest for driving under the influence in May, a month after his back fusion surgery.

The situation presented Woods with a platform for a meaningful conversation about the misuse of prescription medication. But when Woods was asked Tuesday how the “traumatic” events of this year have changed him, he steered his answer around the vulnerabilities that make him fully human.

“I always thought that I was tough mentally,” he said. “My dad always thought so as well. Going through all this just reaffirmed that.”

His father, Earl, also drilled into his head that winning is what matters. So it was heartening, at least, to see Woods diverging from that script and reveling in the journey.

Before his opening 69, Woods said he offered a silent nod of gratitude for all the people — including his surgeon and, presumably, those he encountered during his brief stay in rehab this summer — who had helped make possible his latest comeback.

To borrow one of Woods’s favorite words, it was neat to see him make his way around the Albany golf course here with his eyes, ears and heart open. After briefly vaulting into the lead during his second-round 68, Woods said he was humbled by the support of fans, both in his gallery and on social media.

Woods, left, with Justin Thomas, his playing partner for the final round on Sunday.CreditKyle Terada/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“It’s very flattering,” he added, “that so many people really enjoyed what I’ve done throughout my first 20 years on Tour.”

Woods’s gallery on Sunday included the top-ranked men’s tennis player, Rafael Nadal. “Tiger is incredible,” Nadal said. “I just love to see him play.”

In 2016, Woods finished this event with 24 birdies. But he also recorded six double bogeys. A year later, Woods had two eagles, 17 birdies and one double bogey, on his 64th hole. He played the par-4s in minus-2, a six-stroke improvement over 2016. Woods saved perhaps his purest shot of this tournament for the last day, hitting a two-iron approach at the par-5 third, which traveled farther than he expected, more than 260 yards.

“I just looked at him like, ‘That’s pretty good,’” said Thomas.

The shot reminded Thomas, 24, of the Woods he grew up idolizing. But that Woods appears to have been, for all intents and purposes, relegated to YouTube. As Woods, who turns 42 this month, joked at the Presidents Cup two months ago, “Is anybody who is in their forties ever going to feel like they did in their twenties?”

Thomas, Fowler and the former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy live near Woods in Florida. They’ve kept him feeling youthful by challenging him to money games and needling him as if he were their peer, rather than peerless.

“They want to play almost every day,” Woods said. “They want to compete, they want to see me back out there, and it’s really nice to have that type of camaraderie.”

Woods achieved his astounding career success, which included 79 Tour wins, 14 of which were majors, by tuning out everything and everyone, including his opponents. Not anymore. There he was after his disappointing third-round 75, signing a glove for the bashful young Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, with whom he had been paired.

The old Woods never would have sounded giddy after a round with five bogeys on his scoreboard. But after that third round he spoke with relish about the struggle. “It’s nice to be part of the fight again,” Woods said. “Get out there and fighting against the golf course; fighting against the guys. That’s fun.”

With Woods, the health of his body is always going to be a greater concern than the state of his game. He swallowed at least one anti-inflammatory pill each round, which he said was on the advice of his doctor. He said before the tournament started that it was the only medication he was taking.

But even if he can remain pain-free — no small if — Woods will be hard-pressed to repeat the success he had in 2013, when he won five times and returned to No. 1. For one thing, the players he inspired — Thomas, Fowler and Matsuyama, to name just a few in the top 10 — have the same work ethic that Woods did at the same age. Surely Woods noticed that the fifth-ranked Matsuyama closed down the range each of the first two nights, refining his swing.

Those days are long gone for Woods, whose best prescription for remaining healthy is to work smarter, not harder or longer. And unlike the players who bear the mental scars from losing to Woods by double digits, the millennials in his midst have imitated him but don’t seem intimidated by him.

The 27-year-old Patrick Reed, the world No. 23, wears a red shirt and black slacks on Sundays, which made him appear like a doughy doppelgänger of Woods when they talked on the range before the fourth round. Earlier in the tournament, Reed had imagined his dream scenario of being paired with Woods in the last twosome of the final round.

“The highlights of him in his prime when he has any kind of lead going into Sunday, I think it’s like 93 or 94 percent he wins the golf tournament,” Reed said. “I would hate to ruin that percentage.”

Woods no longer needs to finish first to carry the sport. He can experience joy playing for fun and for his fans. “When I was struggling with my back, the world seemed very small,” Woods said, adding, “Now I’m able to sit back and enjoy it a little bit, talk to more people, go out to more dinners, and it’s been really nice.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D7 of the New York edition with the headline: The Armor Is Still On, but the Heart Seems to Be Opening. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Published at Mon, 04 Dec 2017 01:40:12 +0000

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