Big question mark over Tiger physically, says Sergio Garcia
Twelve months after being the star attraction - well, for a round anyway - in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Tiger Woods is a focus of attention again this week at Emirates Golf Club even though he is 8,400 miles away.
The 14-time major winner makes his comeback on Thursday in a regular PGA Tour event, lining up in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in California, where he has triumphed eight times, including his last major - the 2008 US Open.
It’s his first outing since making an encouraging return in the Hero World Challenge in December after undergoing back surgery for the fourth time last April and, like lots of others, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els will be watching with interest from afar.
“I think everyone is intrigued to see,” said McIlroy of Woods playing in a regular event for the first time since he hobbled around the Majlis Course here just under a year ago in the first round, withdrew the following morning and subsequently had fusion surgery on his troublesome back.
“Even scrolling through Instagram this morning and seeing some of the clips from yesterday, seeing how he’s swinging, seeing how he’s moving; I think everyone wants to see how he gets on.
“Just having Tiger in the conversation in golf is huge. It’s great for the game. It’s better for the players. It creates more interest. There’s more of a buzz about golf; people want to read about it.
“It’s great all around and hopefully his body let’s him play a nice, consistent run of events for the next few years and we’ll see where that gets him. He’s hungry to get back out there and play, so it will be interesting to see.”
Woods, who shot three rounds in the 60s as he finished joint-ninth behind Rickie Fowler on that latest comeback in the Bahamas, is listed at 20-1 to win this week and is the same for The Masters, having been 100-1 when the betting opened for the first major of the 2018 campaign.
“It’s going to be interesting to see,” said Garcia, speaking on the eve of launching his title defence in Dubai. “But, in my opinion, it’s a big question mark to see how he’s going to be able to do physically.
“I think that he looked pretty good at the Hero Challenge. But he has looked good at the Hero Challenge in the past and then, you know, he hasn’t lasted too long.
“Hopefully he’s able to get in a bit of a rhythm when it comes down to playing tournaments. But nobody knows. I think I can say that probably he doesn’t even know how his back and his body is going to cope with everything that goes on with playing tournaments and practising and everything that comes with it. So we’ll see.”
Asked how important he thought it was for golf to have Woods back playing for a prolonged period, the Masters champion added: “Of course we need him. He’s done so much for the game. If he’s not there, will the game of golf fall apart? I don’t think so.
“But, like I always say, the more sugar, the sweeter. The more big-time players we have on Tour, the better it is for the game globally and he’s obviously one of those.”
According to Els, who has often bumped into Woods in Jupiter, Florida, during his injury struggles over the past few years, the former world No 1 will need his back to be fixed properly to have a chance of regaining his best form.
“I ran into him in the Bahamas, but, after the Bahamas, we went to South Africa, so I haven’t seen him recently,” said the big South African. “Before that, I saw him at the Presidents Cup and he was kind of downtalking his chances and so on.
“But I could see he’d done a lot of work physically and you could feel he was getting ready for something. I think in the back of his mind, he was really getting ready for this year, and physically, feels as strong as ever.
“I just hope his back holds up because he’s hitting it hard again, as you saw in the Bahamas. It all looks good for a good year from him, hopefully.”
That certainly looks like being the case for McIlroy after his promising return in last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship following a three-month break. The 28-year-old broke par in all four rounds in finishing joint-third behind Tommy Fleetwood and is now relishing the opportunity to build on that effort in an event he won in both 2009 and 2015.
“Last week was above expectations for me, to be honest, and I guess that has changed the way I view this week a little bit,” admitted McIlroy. “I know that my game is in good enough shape to contend and try to win.
“I feel like I’ve got a bit of a spring back in in my step because of what happened last week and very confident in myself. It’s a golf course I know how to get around and I know how to shoot good scores on.”
The last two winners of this event - Danny Willett and Garcia - have gone on to become Masters champion the same year and McIlroy would become just the sixth player to complete a career Grand Slam if he could follow suit.
“It’s definitely a coincidence,” said the Ulsterman, smiling, when asked if winning on the Majlis Course did, in fact, act as a barometer for Augusta National.
“It is great that Danny and Sergio went on to do something very special after winning here and I will try to keep the run going, but I don’t think you can read too much into that.”
Garcia got his 2018 campaign off to a flying start by winning the Singapore Open on Sunday and the Spaniard is looking forward to trying to back up last season’s major breakthrough.
“I’m going to keep challenging myself to achieve things,” he said. “The goals are still the same: trying to keep improving and getting better in all aspects of the game.”
Asked if he felt it should be easier now to win multiple major championships, he added: “Obviously, yeah, we have won one already, but it doesn’t mean that the next one is going to be easy. It doesn’t work like that.
“It’s still always pressure and trying to overcome things and achieve things. Maybe if you’re in a situation to win, you feel a little bit more comfortable, but it doesn’t mean that it becomes easy.”
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