Tiger's re­turn ul­ti­mately mea­sured by per­for­mance

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By DOUG FER­GU­SON AP Golf Writer

Tiger Woods still has more ma­jors than come­backs. But the gap is nar­row­ing. Woods said he will re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion at the Hero World Chal­lenge the week af­ter Thanks­giv­ing - an 18-man field in the Ba­hamas with no cut - just over seven months af­ter fu­sion surgery. That was his fourth back surgery in a lit­tle more than two years, and that alone should be enough to tem­per ex­pec­ta­tions.

This will be the 10th time that Woods has re­turned from an un­sched­uled break of two months or more, eight of them since win­ning his 14th ma­jor at Tor­rey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open. And it will be the fifth time he re­tur ns since his last vic­tory in Au­gust 2013 at the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional. Should it be cause for cel­e­bra­tion? Of course. A pop­u­lar phrase in re­cent years is that golf needs Woods, but this is only true as it re­lates to his per­for­mance. Other­wise, it be­comes a nos­tal­gia tour, and the ques­tion fac­ing Woods is whether he can han­dle be­ing a cer­e­mo­nial golfer. If that's what this is about, there would be no need for him to play.

This will be the sec­ond straight year that Woods makes a cel­e­brated come­back from back surgery in the Ba­hamas.

He had gone 15 months and two mi­crodis­cec­tomy surg­eries when he played the Hero World Chal­lenge last year and fin­ished 15th against a field of 18 (Justin Rose with­drew af­ter the open­ing round with back pain). Woods made 24 birdies that week but fin­ished at 4-un­der par and was 14 shots be­hind the win­ner, Hideki Mat­suyama.

He was held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard. He was mea­sured by the free­dom of his swing more than his score in re­la­tion to the field. That be­gan to change when he missed the cut at Tor­rey Pines in his first start against a full field, and then flew across eight time zones to Dubai and lasted one round - a 77 - be­fore with­draw­ing the next day be­cause of back spasms.

Dif­fer­ent about this re­turn is the na­ture of the surgery, which car­ried a higher risk and was geared more to­ward his qual­ity of life. Golf is a bonus.

Woods made head­lines at the Pres­i­dents Cup dur­ing a news con­fer­ence for as­sis­tant cap­tains when he was asked if he could see a sce­nario where he would not re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion. “Yeah, def­i­nitely,” he re­sponded. “I don't know what my fu­ture holds for me. As I've told you guys, I'm hit­ting 60-yard shots.”

It was a lead­ing ques­tion that was more about the un­cer­tainty of his health than his de­sire to play, and the out­look changed quickly.

Within a week, he posted a slow-mo­tion video of a full swing. Then an­other one of Woods hit­ting driver, a third video hit­ting a stinger with a long iron, and news amid this tease that doc­tors had cleared him to play and prac­tice with­out re­stric­tions. So what next? For one hol­i­day tour­na­ment, at least, Woods will be tak­ing on a short field that is long on power and tal­ent.

Does any­one re­ally think he can dom­i­nate the likes of Dustin John­son, Jor­dan Spi­eth, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka the way he once ruled his sport? The num­bers sug­gest other­wise. Woods turns 42 at the end of the year and he has gone through eight surg­eries _ four on his left knee, four on his back. Can he win again? It would be fool­ish to de­clare that he can't by mea­sur­ing Woods against the en­tirety of the PGA Tour.

Woods an­nounced he will play the Hero World Chal­lenge on the week that Rod Pam­pling de­fends his ti­tle in Las Ve­gas. Pam­pling, once a fre­quent prac­tice round part­ner of Woods at the ma­jors, is one of the shorter hit­ters and won last year at age 47. Koepka was the run­ner-up.

Pat Perez is 41 and doesn't over­power cour­ses. He has won twice in the last two years and now is No. 18 in the world.

Even with­out win­ning over the last four years while suf­fer­ing from back prob­lems, Woods has built up an enor­mous mys­tique from the pre­vi­ous 18 years that pro­duced 79 vic­to­ries on the PGA Tour.

Thomas won five times last sea­son. Spi­eth and Ja­son Day each won five times in 2015. Woods had 11 sea­sons with at least that many vic­to­ries, and he had six years when he won seven times or more.

“Imag­ine com­bin­ing the year Jor­dan had, the year Ja­son had, the year Justin had. That was Tiger Woods for my whole ju­nior ca­reer,” Koepka said. That's what peo­ple re­mem­ber. That's why his fifth come­back since 2014 still res­onates with hope.

The PGA Tour cel­e­brated the an­nounce­ment of Woods' re­tur n on Tues­day with a tweet that said, “The f i st pump is back.” For now, the only fist pump be­longs to those who are ea­ger to see him play be­cause they were not sure they would get that chance again.

How long that lasts de­pends on Woods.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF AIKEN STAN­DARD

Tiger Woods

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