Tiger Woods finds his rhythm, shoots solid 69 in return to competitive golf

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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Steve DiMeglio discusses Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge.
USA TODAY Sports

NASSAU, Bahamas — On the fourth hole of his latest comeback, the Tiger Woods of old showed up when he chunked a short chip shot.

Moments later, the Tiger of old showed up again when he buried a 20-footer for par on the same hole and uncorked the first fist pump of his comeback.

While Woods called his ballyhooed return “up and down,” he produced far more roars than groans in Thursday’s first round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany Golf Course. In his first start in 10 months and just his fourth in two years, the former world No. 1 didn’t have any issues with his surgically repaired back and was a physical, powerful brute with driver in hand — regularly exceeding 320 yards off the tee.

While there were issues — especially with his chipping — Woods shot a 3-under-par 69 on the windswept layout and stood just three shots off the lead of pace-setting Tommy Fleetwood. Whatever rust there was left early and Woods was swinging freely and aggressively throughout the round.

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He made five birdies, hit 11 greens in regulation, seven of 13 fairways and needed just 27 putts before he put his signature to the scorecard.

Going forward, there is hope instead of despair.

“This morning I knew I was going to tee it up and knew I was going to go full out,” said Woods, who had spinal fusion surgery on his lower back in April. “I had a great gym session this morning, lifted some solid weight, felt good. Yeah, it was good to go.

“I was very happy I found the rhythm of the round by the second hole. After I hit that 8‑iron in there pin high, I felt I’ve got the rhythm. On 3 I just smashed a drive down there and then about 265 into the wind with a 2‑iron, I just hit it on a rope, put it up there on the green. I knew I was back playing again.”

Woods looked nothing like the old man he resembled the last time he played, when back spasms forced a withdrawal in February in the Dubai Desert Classic. After a robust 340-yard drive on the opening hole, he hit a nifty knock-down shot from 88 yards to 10 feet. He unleashed several swings that were the most vicious he’s gone at the ball since he got the go-ahead from his surgeon to resume golf activities. He regularly outdrove playing partner Justin Thomas, the reigning PGA Tour player of the year who is anything but short off the tee.

Woods hit just one tee shot off the planet — a drive on the 15th that was 30 yards right of the fairway and led to a bogey. But other than that, Woods kept the ball in play, grinded and scored.

“Last year I got tired,” Woods said of his comeback in the same tournament 12 months ago. “This year with my back better, my training sessions have been much better, my strength is up and I didn’t feel tired at all, which is great.”

But there were issues, especially when he wrapped his paws around a wedge for chip shots. There was a chunked chip off a tight lie on the fourth, a poor bunker shot on the seventh, another chunked chip off a tight lie on the ninth. After the turn he hit a poor chip off another tight lie on the 11th.

It was mindful of the chipping problems — yips is what many called them — that descended on and then haunted Woods in the 2014 Hero World Challenge in Florida. Weeks later in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, he chunked and skulled his way to a miserable missed cut.

One could dismiss his problems with the short game due to rust. But recent history suggests otherwise, that the problems may deal with what’s happening between his ears. The best example of Woods’ Jekyll-and-Hyde performance came at the 605-yard par-5 ninth, where he needed just two shots to go 603 yards but four shots to finish the last 10 yards. After a massive drive and 3-wood, Woods chunked his short chip shot and didn’t reach the green. He raced his putt from off the green 10 feet past the hole and missed the comebacker.

“It’s frustrating because I have a hard time with this into‑the‑grain, ball sitting down (chips shots). I have to hit the ball high,” said Woods, the former world No. 1 for a record 683 weeks who is now ranked No. 1,199. “I’m used to using the bounce and hitting behind it a little bit and getting it up, but it’s so sticky that it’s really hard to do. I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”

Hopefully he will. It looks like the only thing holding him back right now, especially if his back holds up.

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