Tiger re­turns to Tour’s ‘dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment’

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Steve DiMeglio

DUBLIN, Ohio – Tiger Woods knows he needs to swiftly shed some rust and rapidly find a rhythm to play­ing a PGA Tour event again. He also has to quickly dis­cover a cadence to deal with a new world of si­lence.

Af­ter a five-month break from the PGA Tour, Woods re­turned to work Tues­day along­side Justin Thomas for a quick – and very quiet – prac­tice round on the back nine at sun­drenched Muir­field Vil­lage ahead of Thurs­day’s start of the Me­mo­rial.

It didn’t take long for Woods to see things are go­ing to be un­usual. “It’s cer­tainly a dif­fer­ent world, dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment that we’re in,” Woods said. “To play prac­tice rounds like this and to watch as the Tour has evolved and started back and to see no fans, it’s just a very dif­fer­ent world out here.

“I’ve had cam­eras on me since I turned pro, so it’s been over 20-someodd years that vir­tu­ally al­most ev­ery one of my shots that I’ve hit on the Tour has been doc­u­mented. But this is a dif­fer­ent world and one we’re go­ing to have to get used to. There’s noth­ing to feed off of en­ergy-wise. You make a big putt or make a big par or make a big chip or hit a hell of a shot, there’s no one there. That’s one of the more in­ter­est­ing things that I’ll be deal­ing with go­ing for­ward.”

Woods last played on the Tour Feb. 16 when he shot a fi­nal-round 77 and fin­ished in last place in the Ge­n­e­sis In­vi­ta­tional at Riviera Coun­try Club north of Los Angeles. In his only other start on the Tour this year, Woods, who is seek­ing his record 83rd PGA Tour ti­tle, fin­ished in a tie for ninth in the Farm­ers In­surance Open in Jan­uary.

He last played in com­pe­ti­tion – and played well – in The Match: Cham­pi­ons for Char­ity on May 24, where he and Peyton Man­ning de­feated Phil Mick­el­son and Tom Brady on the fi­nal hole.

Woods, 44, con­sid­ered play­ing a tour­na­ment be­fore the Me­mo­rial but opted on the side of cau­tion. He wanted to see how things played out when the Tour re­turned af­ter a 13-week hia­tus due to the COVID global pan­demic. Now he has to find a rou­tine in deal­ing with COVID on the road.

“I feel that I’m com­fort­able enough to come back out here and play again, and I’m ex­cited to do it,” said Woods, who has won the Me­mo­rial a record five times, the most re­cent vic­tory com­ing in 2012. “The Tour has done a fan­tas­tic job of set­ting up the safety and try­ing to en­sure that all of us are pro­tected and are safe, but it is a risk that we are now un­der­tak­ing when we walk on the prop­erty and are around in­di­vid­u­als that you don’t know where they’ve been or what they’ve been do­ing.

“But the screen­ing, the test­ing we’ve done, the pro­tec­tions that we’ve tried to im­ple­ment on the Tour have shown that we’ve had to make ad­just­ments, but it’s a risk that I’m will­ing to take.”

Woods, ranked No. 14 in the world, said he kept active in his time away, fre­quently play­ing golf at The Medal­ist near his Florida com­pound; play­ing a bunch of ten­nis; and spend­ing tons of qual­ity time with his two chil­dren. He also was able to train through­out the time off and said his body feels much bet­ter now than it did in Fe­bru­ary when back stiff­ness popped up in Los Angeles and both­ered him for a few weeks.

“I’ve been able to train and con­cen­trate on get­ting back up to speed and back up to tour­na­ment speed,” he said.

Woods has plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence to call upon when deal­ing with long lay­offs, his trou­ble­some left knee and back forc­ing plenty of ex­tended breaks. And in his most re­cent deal­ings with play­ing in front of no spec­ta­tors, he’s done quite well.

Last fall, fans were not al­lowed for the sec­ond round of the Zozo Cham­pi­onship in Ja­pan af­ter tor­ren­tial storms. Woods shot 64 that day and went on to win the tour­na­ment by three shots to tie Sam Snead for the most vic­to­ries in PGA Tour his­tory with 82. The win also came 11 weeks af­ter he last played and two months af­ter hav­ing surgery for the fifth time on his left knee.

And in 2012, Woods played the third round of the AT&T Na­tional at Con­gres­sional north of the na­tion’s cap­i­tal in front of no fans af­ter a storm up­rooted trees on the golf course. He shot 67 – his low round of the tour­na­ment – and went on to win by two shots. The vic­tory was his 74th and moved him past Jack Nick­laus on the all-time win list.

“I’m go­ing to have to just put my head down and play. But it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent, there’s no doubt about it,” Woods said. “I would like to say that I’m go­ing to win the event. That’s my in­tent. That’s my in­tent go­ing into ev­ery event. Come Sun­day, hope­fully that will be the case. It was that one par­tic­u­lar week, three tour­na­ments ago at the Zozo. There’s no rea­son why I can’t do it again this week. I’ve just got to go out there and do my work and make that hap­pen.”

ADAM CAIRNS/THE COLUM­BUS DIS­PATCH – USA TODAY NET­WORK

Tiger Woods hits his sec­ond shot on the 15th hole dur­ing a prac­tice round Tues­day for the Me­mo­rial Tour­na­ment at Muir­field Vil­lage Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.

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