November 28, 2017

Tiger preps for Hero World Challenge

ALBANY, Bahamas — Excited, apprehensive and most importantly — pain-free, Tiger Woods returns to competitive golf on Thursday at the $3.5 million Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas.

Woods, the tournament host, played in one PGA Tour event this year, missing the cut last January at the Farmers Insurance Open. The next week he played in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and withdrew after the first round due to back spasms.

He hasn’t competed since.

“This is a big step for me,” a relaxed Woods said Tuesday during a pre-tournament press conference.

Woods hoped to play at the Masters, but was in too much pain. He underwent lumbar fusion surgery last April, the fourth operation on his back, and wasn’t sure if he would be able to play professionally again.

“I didn’t realize how bad my back was and how much I was flinching and just how slow I was,” Woods said. “I didn’t realize it because it’s been a slow degrading process. I thought I was playing halfway decent, shot some good scores, but now I’ve looked back on it and man, I didn’t even have much at all.”

Immediately after the fusion procedure, he felt relief. This, following months of constant nerve pain shooting down his leg that often made it challenging to get out of bed. The only time he used a golf club was to get around his house.

“I always thought that I was tough mentally,” said Woods, who turns 42 next month. “My dad always thought so as well. Going through all this just reaffirmed it.”

Woods used medications for pain relief and sleep. He pleaded guilty for a reckless driving charge in late May and has received the help he needed.

“I’ve come out on the other side and I feel fantastic,” he said.

Never the most patient person, Woods listened to his surgeons and trainers during an arduous rehabilitation process that included walking, running in the pool, swimming and bike riding. He returned to the gym to rebuild his muscle tone and finally received clearance to chip and putt.

Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler dropped by his practice putting green to provide competition, and usually left lighter in the pocket.

The next step was short wedge shots. Feeling no ill-effects, Woods slowly began working his way through his bag, eventually bunting 150-yard drivers.

Admittedly, he was nervous about how hard to push his body and how he would feel the next day. But his surgeon assured him the fusion surgery was successful.

“He said I would be fine for the rest of my life,” Woods said. “I’m still trying to let that sink in.”

Next came nine hole rounds at the Medalist Club near his home in Jupiter, Fla. He was often joined by Fowler, and not only kept up, but hit it past him.

“I had a little pop,” said Woods. “That gave me confidence.”

Pacing himself, Woods alternated between walking and riding, even playing 36 holes some days with Fowler, Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Daniel Berger and Dustin Johnson. More often than not, he finished with sub-par scores.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Woods said. “They’ve been fantastic, to be honest with you, because I’ve gotten to know them through the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup and I’ve really become very close with a few of them.”

Woods is one of 18 players in the field this week that features six of the top 10 players in the world. Participants include Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed.

There is no cut in the 72-hole event that will be televised live by the Golf Channel and NBC. Woods tees off Thursday at 12:05 EDST p.m. ET with Thomas.

A five-time winner of the Hero World Challenge, Woods finished 15th last year and led the field in birdies with 24.

Asked about his expectations, Woods said, “I really don’t know. I just really want to be able to compete this week, play all four days and give myself a chance on that back nine on Sunday to win this thing.”

Then he will reassess. He played a practice round Tuesday afternoon with Fowler and Thomas.

“I don’t know what the future holds because I’m still learning this body,” said Woods. “But I don’t have any pain and life is so much better.”

A winner of 79 PGA Tour titles and 14 major championships, Woods’ last victory came at the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Some of today’s young stars only know about his success from YouTube.

“When I turned pro, I think Jordan was still in diapers,” said Woods.

He would love to change that.

“In an ideal world, I would like to have them feel what some of my past guys had to go against all those years,” Woods said.