Sunday, January 21News That Matters

2017 Hero World Challenge leaderboard: Tiger Woods just three back after Round 1

The first round of the 2017 Hero World Challenge is in the books, and if it was any indication of how the rest of the week is going to go, we’re in for one hell of a tournament. 

Tommy Fleetwood leads at 6 under, but he’s trailed closely by Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar at 5 under. Following those two are Kevin Chappell, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth at 4 under.

*waves hands wildly in air and sends off several flares into atmosphere* 

Then at 3 under are Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and two others. I repeat, Tiger Woods is three off the lead at a real golf tournament after shooting a first-round 69 in his first competitive round in 10 months. Woods had five birdies and two bogeys, but impressed throughout. Not “hasn’t played in 10 months so for that he looked pretty good” impressed. He was just … really good.

“I didn’t know what I could do,” Woods told Todd Lewis of Golf Channel. “I’ve been playing a lot of holes at home, but it’s a little different when you have to tee it up in a tournament.”

With Fleetwood riding a year-long heater and Johnson, Fowler and Spieth mixing it up, the next three days should rock. But we all know the real headline is Woods and his return to golf. I watched all 18 holes on Thursday, and I have a few thoughts.

1. Woods was going after it: There are two schools of thought when it comes to Tiger Woods’ 2017 swing. The first is this: Slow down, man. You’ve had four back surgeries, your spine is fused together and nobody cares what your score is in early December. The second is this: If you’re going to play, just play. 

Woods clearly subscribes to the latter. He was pummeling the ball on Thursday and looked as if he wanted to remind playing partner Justin Thomas whose footsteps he (and everyone his age) is following in when it comes to distance.

I mean, look at this.

He was at or around 180 mph ball speed for the drives I saw, which is sort of remarkable for somebody who just started swinging a few months ago. The good news here is two-fold. He looks a lot faster than he did this time last year. He said looking back on that, he felt like he was swinging in slow motion. That’s not a thing anyone thought on Thursday. 

The second part of that good news is that he clearly feels well enough to let go mentally and physically. Will the back hold? Nobody knows. But he doesn’t have anything to work up to from a velocity standpoint because he’s already there.

2. Tiger’s (chipping yips are) back? Woods fatted chips at Nos. 4 and 9. One led to a fist-pumping par save. The other led to a bogey (on a hole where he probably should have had an eagle putt). It’s not an epidemic (yet), but it’s clearly not as sharp as it needs to be for the short- or long-term future. 

3. Putter was impressive: Woods blew a few putts past, which is understandable given the layoff. But for the most part, his speed on birdie putts and par saves was fantastic. These greens aren’t exactly running “Shinnecock on Sunday” on the stimpmeter, but this was the part of Woods’ game for which my expectations were the lowest. He exceeded them on Thursday.

4. Scoring excitement: In a bit of irony, the lower Woods’ own expectations seem to be (“I didn’t know what I could do”), the lower his score gets. In last year’s first round, he shot a 1-over 73. He was four shots better than that on Thursday and is legitimately in the hunt to contend for this tournament. I went from “well, this is a glorified exhibition, so let’s give it some time” to “let’s put this dude on the Ryder Cup team in Paris!” faster than Ernie Els got out of the Golf Channel booth after being peppered with Woods’ questions for 25 minutes.

Of course, Woods followed up his 73 last year with a 65 in the second round, but last year’s ride was bumpy. He led the field in birdies, but looked far rustier that entire week than he ever did in Round 1 on Thursday. It’s honestly almost surreal how polished Woods looked on Thursday (other than the chipping) given how much time he’s been away and the fact that he’s only played a tournament and a half in the last 28 months.

He started feeling himself, too. He threw a monster fist pump on the fourth green after a par save, and one of the first things out of his mouth afterwards was how he’s only three back of Fleetwood.

5. He labored for the 69: Woods’ swing seemed to get more fluid as the day went on. The part of Woods’ Twitter videos and practice rounds that has given me pause is how he finishes. Straight and stiff. It’s looked like a 60-year-old trying to do yoga. Interestingly, though, Woods seemed to get more elastic as the day went on. He started finishing like an athlete instead of like a piece of plywood. And he hit a couple of irons that made you gasp.

The problem, as it were, is that it also looked like he was not completely in playing shape. It wasn’t exactly chilly in the Bahamas, I know, but Woods looked like he’d just gotten off a 25-mile march with the Marines by the time he strolled up No. 18. It will take him a little bit of time to get his legs, but ultimately that reality will probably keep him from truly contending this week.

Regardless, Thursday was a thrill. “Is it really different than last year?” is a fair question, and one I’m not totally sure I have the answer to. The only thing I know for now is that Tiger looks different than last year. At least for now. Is his back built for 5-10 more years of trying to throw knockout punches off the tee in front of 20-somethings? I don’t know, but in this moment right now, I also don’t think it matters.

Woods is back for the time being, and his 18-hole trajectory is as encouraging and as optimistic as it’s been since the Wyndham Championship in August 2015. The epilogue started nicely, but there is so much more left to be written.

Thanks for joining us.

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