Play­ing again is a suc­cess for Tiger

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Doug Fer­gu­son

NASSAU, BA­HAMAS >> This might be one time that Tiger Woods doesn’t mea­sure suc­cess on the golf course by the score on his card.

He mea­sured it with three words Tues­day: “I’m play­ing again.”

There were times dur­ing his 15 months away from golf that Woods wasn’t en­tirely sure that would be the case. He said that when he was at the Hero World Chal­lenge last year, he needed help just to climb out of bed. At an out­door party at Al­bany Golf Club, he would min­gle for a few min­utes and then sit on a stone bench.

He spent more time look­ing back than look­ing for­ward, say­ing at one point that any­thing else he achieved in golf would be “gravy.”

And now he can’t wait to get started on Thurs­day.

The 15-month break to heal fol­low­ing back surg­eries is the long­est he has been away from golf. Woods was a mix­ture of op­ti­mism and re­al­ity about his re­turn. He talked about hav­ing all the shots he needs to com­pete against a field that in­cludes 17 play­ers from the top 40 and Woods, the tour­na­ment host who is at a ca­reer-low No. 898. He is play­ing, so he said he wants to win. The outlook is no dif­fer­ent.

He also noted that Bubba Wat­son won last year at 25-un­der par, and it prob­a­bly will take some­thing around that to win.

“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,” he said. “Phys­i­cally and also equip­ment, prac­tice sched­ules, train­ing, all that has evolved. The mind­set of com­pet­ing hasn’t. That is to go out there and try to beat these guys.”

He still is work­ing with swing coach Chris Como, whom he brought on two years ago. Now that Nike is out of the equip­ment busi­ness, Woods is us­ing a Tay­lorMade driver and fair­way met­als, a Bridge­stone golf ball and his old Scotty Cameron put­ter that he used to win all but one of his 14 ma­jors.

But it starts with play­ing.

“Put it this way: It’s a lot bet­ter sit­u­a­tion this year than last,” Woods said. “I just couldn’t get out of bed. I needed help. It was a tough, tough time. You asked me then, ‘Could I play?’ No. I can’t even get out of bed. How am I sup­posed to swing a club at 120 miles an hour? That’s just two dif­fer­ent worlds.”

The Hero World Chal­lenge, which he started in 1999 to ben­e­fit the Tiger Woods Foun­da­tion, is ef­fec­tively a hol­i­day tour­na­ment for golf’s elite that has no cut and pays $1 mil­lion to the winner. It feels so much big­ger this year be­cause of Woods.

Over the last year, he played five holes to open his new golf course, Blue­jack Na­tional, out­side Hous­ton. And he took three swings with a wedge on the par-3 10th hole at Con­gres­sional dur­ing a day to pro­mote the Quicken Loans Na­tional. All three went in the wa­ter.

Everyone is cu­ri­ous to see how he plays. That in­cludes Woods.

His biggest con­cern is how far his shots will go be­cause he hasn’t played with any adren­a­line since the fi­nal round of the Wyn­d­ham Cham­pi­onship on Aug. 23, 2015. He doesn’t know how his game will stack up against play­ers he watched at Hazel­tine when he was an as­sis­tant cap­tain at the Ry­der Cup.

His pre­vi­ous long break from golf was eight months when he had re­con­struc­tive surgery on his left knee af­ter win­ning the 2008 U.S. Open at Tor­rey Pines, the last of his 14 ma­jor ti­tles. He won his open­ing match in the Match Play Cham­pi­onship and won two tour­na­ments later at Bay Hill.

That was a knee. This is a back.

He was 33, not a month away from turn­ing 41. And that was long be­fore any chaos in his per­sonal life.

Asked what he would ex­pect to feel Thurs­day at Al­bany Golf Club, Woods said, “I’ll let you know then, be­cause I don’t know right now.”

“Yeah, there’s nerves, of course, be­cause I care. I care about what I do out there,” he said. “I want to win, and I want to place the ball in the cor­rect spots, give my­self the best an­gles and bury these putts. Try­ing to fig­ure that out, yeah, there’s nerves.”

Woods of­ten talks about the “process” when he’s chang­ing his swing. This was a dif­fer­ent kind of process. It starts with hit­ting golf balls at home, then play­ing a prac­tice round at home, and then bring­ing that game out to a tour­na­ment, com­pet­ing and even­tu­ally get­ting into contention.

“Right now, I haven’t even com­peted yet, so I’m at the be­gin­ning stages of that,” he said.

Jack Nick­laus spoke Tues­day morn­ing at the HSBC Busi­ness Fo­rum in Florida and talked about how golf wasn’t nearly as im­por­tant to him as com­pet­ing. That’s some­thing to which Woods can re­late. What he said he missed was the com­pe­ti­tion, whether on tour or at home with friends.

“But the big­ger the stage,” Woods said, “the more fun for me.”

“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. Phys­i­cally and also equip­ment, prac­tice sched­ules, train­ing, all that has evolved. The mind­set of com­pet­ing hasn’t. That is to go out there and try to beat these guys.”

DOUG FER­GU­SON — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Tiger Woods speaks at a press con­fer­ence for the Hero World Chal­lenge golf tour­na­ment in Nassau, Ba­hamas on Tues­day.

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