High in­ter­est greets Tiger Woods’ re­turn

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

Ev­ery­one is watch­ing, ev­ery­one is cu­ri­ous, and Jor­dan Spi­eth had the per­fect view of Tiger Woods for his re­turn to golf Wed­nes­day in Nassau, Bahamas.

NASSAU, BAHAMAS >> Ev­ery­one is watch­ing, ev­ery­one is cu­ri­ous, and Jor­dan Spi­eth had the per­fect view of Tiger Woods for his re­turn to golf.

Spi­eth was on the 17th green and looked across a nar­row pond to the ninth tee at Albany Golf Club where Woods stood over his tee shot dur­ing the Wed­nes­day pro-am. He saw the swing, but he lost sight of the ball in the glare of the trop­i­cal sun.

“Where did it go?” Spi­eth said as he tried to gauge where the ball might land. “Not in the fair­way.” He looked again. “Whoa! There it is — WAY down there,” he said. “Damn.”

The shots and the score don’t count un­til Thurs­day at the Hero World Chal­lenge with an 18-man field, small but strong. Woods is play­ing for the first time in 465 days. The ex­pec­ta­tions have rarely been this var­ied. The in­ter­est is as high as ever.

“He’s the only per­son ... in the last 30 years in golf that any ex­pec­ta­tion you set, he’ll some­how prove to you that he can do bet­ter,” Spi­eth said. “But I think with this, I just hope that ev­ery­one gives him time. I hope he has the time to fall into a rhythm and just get enough tour­na­ments where he can kind of build up that see­ing the shots un­der com­pe­ti­tion, un­der the gun.

“You can look back 10 years at shots you hit. It’s not the same as look­ing back the week be­fore on a pos­i­tive swing.”

Woods last played on Aug. 23, 2015, when he closed with a 70 at the Wyn­d­ham Cham­pi­onship to fall out of con­tention and tie for 10th. Two back surg­eries fol­lowed, leav­ing him so de­bil­i­tated at times that he won­dered if he would ever play.

He tees off at high noon in the Bahamas with Pa­trick Reed, who idol­ized his golf so much as a teenager that he wears black pants and a red shirt on Sun­day.

Reed is but one ex­am­ple of the golf land­scape to which Woods re­turns, one of seven play­ers in the 18-man field who were not even on tour when Woods last won a ma­jor at the 2008 U.S. Open. An­other is Rus­sell Knox, who said re­cently, “My short ca­reer will never be over un­til I play with Tiger Woods.”

It was only three years ago that Woods won five times and was PGA Tour player of the year. That still wasn’t the dom­i­nance he once had over the game, for he fin­ished in the top 10 only 53 per­cent of the time, his low­est rate in a dozen years.

Woods had five or more vic­to­ries 11 times in a span of 13 sea­sons.

“The bet­ter he plays, the bet­ter it is for golf,” Rickie Fowler said. “Whether he gets back to the way he did in the early 2000s — from what I’ve heard, it was ar­guably the best any­one has ever played — that might be tough be­cause of in­juries, and he’s at a dif­fer­ent age. It’s not like he’s been away that long. It just seems longer be­cause of how dom­i­nant he was.”

Woods de­clared him­self ready to play and said, “I’m go­ing to try to win this thing.”

The pro-am is never a true mea­sure, and the wind was whip­ping across the is­land on Wed­nes­day. Even so, Woods showed no sign of fa­tigue or aches, and his swing cer­tainly looked more ef­fi­cient than when he was play­ing no more than 10 times each of the pre­vi­ous two years as he was try­ing to nav­i­gate a bad back.

On the par-5 third hole, he hit a drive and a 3-iron to about 10 feet for an ea­gle. He also had a few bo­geys along the way. Con­di­tions were not easy on any of the play­ers. Woods said there were no sur­prises about how he played, and his only com­plaint was get­ting his speed right on the green.

“I was able to hit all the shots I needed to hit,” he said.

Spi­eth has seen Woods when he was No. 1 in the world. He’d love noth­ing more than to see the Woods that once made win­ning — ma­jors in­cluded — look rou­tine.

“We all hope for many rea­sons that he comes back fully healthy and his game is fully back,” Spi­eth said. “To name one, you don’t ever want to see some­body go down be­cause of in­jury. And two, I think it was a dream for all of us young guys to one day grow up and bat­tle Tiger on a Sun­day when he was play­ing his best, and see if you can Y.E. Yang it, see if you can pull off a shot where you can take him down.”

Yang ral­lied from two be­hind to beat Woods in the 2009 PGA Cham­pi­onship, the only time Woods lost a ma­jor when lead­ing go­ing into the fi­nal round.

Woods has played with Fowler and Justin Rose, Ja­son Dufner and Justin Thomas, in re­cent months. Sim­u­lat­ing tour­na­ment con­di­tions is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter, and that will be the ul­ti­mate mea­sure this week and be­yond.

“He’s been out of com­pet­i­tive­ness for quite some time, so that might be a lit­tle while be­fore you find your bear­ings again,” Hen­rik Sten­son said. “But as you know, he’s done some re­mark­able things through­out his ca­reer. And if there’s some­one that can jump right back up and play some great golf again, that would be him.”

LYNNE SLADKY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the sixth green dur­ing the Pro-Am at the Hero World Chal­lenge on Wed­nes­day.

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