Can it really be true that, after the four majors, a tournament featuring an 18-man field in the Bahamas this week will be the most keenly-anticipated event in golf for the second year running? The answer, I suspect, is “yes” because, like it or not, no-one still comes close in this game to Tiger Woods in stimulating interest, hence why the Hero World Challenge will once again prove compelling to millions of golf fans around the world.
As was the case 12 months ago, it will mark the tournament host’s return from back surgery, having undergone his fourth procedure in 18 months shortly after last year’s promising comeback – he led the star-studded field in birdies – proved to be a false dawn, both for Woods himself and his many loyal fans.
Is there any reason to think this won’t be Groundhog Day all over again? Well, it was just two months ago that the 14-time major winner conceded for the first time that he feared his career may have been over and sent the golfing world into one of those frenzies only he can ignite, so that could be a possible alarm bell.
However, there does appear to be a big difference as Woods prepares to make this latest much-anticipated comeback and that is the fact his latest surgery involved his lower back being fused, whereas the previous ones entailed microdiscectomy. In short, the first attempts to solve his problem didn’t take away the pain but now he seems to be swinging a club – and living life – without any discomfort whatsoever.
“The fact that I don’t have any pain in my lower back any more compared to what I was living with for years… it’s just remarkable,’’ said Woods in an interview on Sunday with ESPN.com’s Bob Harig, the first golf correspondent on site at Albany Golf Club. “It could be the next step, I just didn’t know [when the pain would occur]. That’s tough to live with. And it’s been a struggle for years.
“To finally come out on the good side of it is exciting. I am stiffer [due to his lower back being fused]. But I don’t have the pain. Life is so much better.’’ That’s great to hear because, let’s face it, it’s been a pretty bad few years for the man who was the world No 1 for a total of 683 weeks. He has brought some of it on himself, admittedly, and I’m not just referring to the infidelity that cost him his marriage. He should never have been near a US Navy SEAL “Kill House” ten years ago when he suffered the bad knee injury that proved to be the start of his downfall on the golf course.
There’s no denying, however, that the vast majority of people out there – golfers and non-golfers alike – have felt sympathy for Woods during his fight with this health issue, which reached crisis point when he was almost hirpling around the Majlis Course at the Emirates Golf Club during the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in early February.
That, for me, was easily the most harrowing moment of the 2017 season and, if there is to be even a hint of the same thing starting to materialise over the next few months, then enough really is enough. Fused back or not, no-one wants to see this great player needlessly banging his head against a brick wall if he is no longer physically capable of playing 72 holes in the heat of battle. That’s what no-one – not even Woods himself – can really answer with total confidence until he has ten or so tournaments under his belt.
Remember, we are talking about a man – now 41 – who has managed just 19 worldwide starts in the past three-and-a-half years, so please let’s do him a favour by keeping those expectations realistic. This week can only be about him showing that he is indeed in better health than he was 12 months ago, even though a win would catapult him from a lowly 1199th in the world to somewhere around 135th and solo tenth would lift him 530 spots to inside the top 700.
What was really encouraging to hear about the game Woods played at the weekend with US President Donald Trump, world No 1 Dustin Johnson and the long-time PGA Tour player, Brad Faxon, was that he seems to have finally accepted that he can no longer try to hit the ball out of sight. He has never been great at trying to play within himself once the gun goes off but, according to Faxon anyway, the penny may finally have dropped in that respect.
“Tiger looked great to me,’’ he said in an interview with Golfweek. “He was happy, and more than anything, finally pain-free. He was not concerned about swinging hard and going at it with the driver. The ball flight, the sound off the club, all of it was right there.’’
Let’s hope so but, more than anything else, please let this be the start of an exciting new journey for a fit and healthy again Tiger Woods.