Coming into 2018, the “big” story was the long-anticipated return to competitive action of 79-time Tour winner Tiger Woods. One of the most transcendent icons in professional sports, debate after debate was had regarding his future prospects.
Would he be the same player he was before? Will he ever win another major? Heck, will he even win a Tour event again?
Now four events into the comeback of comebacks, one answer has become clear: Tiger is still pretty darn good.
“Well, just keep getting better. Just keep making incremental improvements and I think I’ve don’t that. Each and every week I’ve learned from what I’ve done and more importantly I’m learning my body. I’m learning how I can swing it and not swing it,” said Woods yesterday at Bay Hill.
Finishing T23 in his first event back, the Farmers Insurance Classic, was impressive given the layoff, the difficulty of the course (Torrey Pines), and the fact that he placed so well despite performing ghastly with his driver.
A missed cut at the Genesis Open was disappointing, but understandable and not in any way alarming. At least he was still healthy.
Tiger spent a considerable amount of Sunday in his third outing back, the Honda Classic, on the leaderboard’s top 10, eventually settling for a solo-12th, also extremely encouraging.
Then came last week’s Valspar Championship. Despite the rust he is clearly still shaking off, Tiger finished runner-up at Innisbrook, finishing at 9-under par, and playing all four of his rounds under par.
“I think that I’ve gotten a little bit better than I was a couple weeks ago at Honda, keep getting a little bit better and sharper and today wasn’t quite as sharp as I would like to have had it but I had a good shot as winning this golf tournament,” said Woods on Sunday evening at Innisbrook.
After four opening-round bogeys, he had just three over the final three rounds combined (one in each). He finished third in the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green, stayed sharp around the greens, and actually hit a decent amount of fairways.
A long birdie putt on 17 looked like vintage Sunday Tiger, which gave him a chance to force a playoff with with a birdie on 18. He posted a par, but the T2 finish was much better than expected given all the circumstances.
“Nice putt at 17. Gave myself a chance going to 18 and one thing you can’t do is leave it short,” said Woods, describing his final two holes.
“The grain chewed it up up the hill. Unfortunately, didn’t get it there.”
Now, stop No. 5 on the Tiger Woods Comeback Tour occurs this week at Bay Hill, the host venue of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, an event he’s won eight times.
“I’m really looking forward to next week. I hadn’t played there in a couple years because of my back and I wanted to play there a couple years ago,” said Woods.
“We were close to — knew Arnold was not in very good shape. I wanted to play one last time before he moved on and unfortunately I just couldn’t play.”
The tournament has been held annually since 1966, and no other golfer has won at Arnie’s Place more than twice. Among those Tiger triumphs was a one-stroke thriller over Phil Mickelson in 2001, an 11-shot romp in 2003, a 25-foot walk-off putt on the last hole in 2008, and a five-stroke Sunday comeback in 2009.
In his most recent trip to Bay Hill, Tiger nabbed win No. 8 in a Monday finish over Justin Rose. He has not played the past four editions, mostly due to injury issues, but he has every reason to be confident teeing it up at this course again.
“Yeah, to be able to win this tournament and to have Arnold there and to shake his hand and for him to give me a big hug and a couple times he says, I called it, I knew you were going to make that putt,” said Woods yesterday at Bay Hill.
“And it was little things like that, the last sharing jokes with him out there on the green and he and I laughing, those are moment that is unfortunately that I’ll never have, but I have those memories.”
In a span of just four tournaments, the golf world has gone from just hoping Tiger could stay healthy and competitive, to suddenly expecting a win.
He is the odds-on favorite to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in a strong field that includes the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, and Hideki Matsuyama.
It is almost surreal that Tiger is back in this position so soon after a spinal fusion and a litany of mental challenges.