WHEN the initial field for the Hero World Challenge was announced, it was not so much who was on the list of players but who was not that attracted most attention.
Adding to the intrigue was the fact only 19 names appeared. On November 18 though, 12 days out from the opening round, Tiger Woods confirmed he would be taking up the sponsors’ exemption to return to competitive action at Albany in The Bahamas.
The 15-time major winner has not wielded a club in anger since an aborted attempt to play in this year’s Masters in April, withdrawing from the tournament at Augusta National he has won five times due to plantar fasciitis and subsequently undergoing ankle surgery to repair issues still lingering from his 2021 car accident.
“My game feels rusty,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m excited to compete and play and I’m just as curious as all of you are to see what happens because I haven’t done it in a while.
“I can tell you this, I don’t have any of the pain that I had at Augusta or pre that in my ankle.
“Other parts are taking the brunt of the load so I’m a little more sore in other areas, but the ankle’s good. That surgery was a success”
Woods’ most recent public appearance on a golf course saw him serving as caddie for his son Charlie across 54 holes at the Notah Begay III Junior Golf National Championship and although that was not entirely pain-free, his troublesome right ankle was up to the task over four rounds.
“I’m pretty sore after caddying for four days,” Woods said. “It was a flat course, thank God.
“My ankle is fine. Where they fused my ankle, I have absolutely zero issue whatsoever.
“That pain is completely gone, it’s the other areas that have been compensated for.”
Some thought Woods might wait until the PNC Championship, where he and Charlie teamed up last year and he would be able to use a golf buggy, to make his return.
Yet the host of the Hero World Challenge, which benefits Woods’ charitable foundation, has opted to play in his own event.
“The timing of the event, with the smaller field size, the fact that it’s at the end of the year, which sets me up for expectations going into the following year, it’s a nice landing spot,” Woods said.
“I’ve found this as a nice little spot to kind if turn the page and then move on to the next chapter . . . and my foundation benefits from it. There’s so many positives that come about.”
The 47-year-old finished one-under par over four rounds as he tied for 45th at The Genesis Invitational in February, and carded respectable opening rounds of 74 and 73 at the Masters prior to his withdrawal following the suspension of the third round due to bad weather.
Although his final two holes at Augusta saw him card back-to-back double-bogeys, Woods showed enough over both of his playing appearances this year to prove the technical side of his game remains at a reasonable level.
Paul McGinley expects him to showcase that again at Albany.
However, the Team Europe Ryder Cup-winning player and captain is intrigued to see how Woods copes with the physical challenge of playing four rounds in the no-cut event at Albany.
“The swinging actually turns out to be the easiest part of it, the hardest bit is the walking with his foot and his ankle in particular,” McGinley told Sky Sports Golf.
“I don’t expect him to win the tournament. He’ll play decently like he always does, he’ll come out and be competitive because he’s always competitive.
“His game will be in decent shape because I’m sure he’s hitting a lot of balls, but we’re all interested to see where he is physically.
“Mentally he’ll be good, technically he’ll be good, but the third element to being a professional golfer is where is he going to be physically?”
The fact Woods’ return to action, even though he is perhaps no longer in contention to win tournaments, caused such a stir underlined how much pulling power he retains in the golfing world.
For former LET player Sophie Walker, seeing a player who is already regarded as one of golf’s all-time greats back on the course, even fleetingly, is enough and she is determined to savour every one of those up to the point Woods eventually decides to step away from competing.
“I’ve said since the car accident, whenever we get to see him, enjoy it because you just don’t know when you’re going to see him again,” Walker told the Sky Sports Golf Podcast.
“People can say, ‘It’s another comeback, it’s another comeback’ – he doesn’t have to come back, which is why I admire him for putting himself out there.
“If we can see him twice a year, I’ll take that.
“I don’t know what the hopes are for him in that respect, just that he gets round and isn’t in pain.”
When asked himself what motivates him still to play, and how long he could continue to do so, Woods said: “I love competing, I love playing.
“I miss being out here with the guys, I miss the camaraderie and the fraternity-like atmosphere out here and the overall banter. But what drives me is I love to compete.
“There will come a point in time, I haven’t come around to it fully yet, that I won’t be able to win again. When that day comes, I’ll walk away.”
Woods was then asked a follow-up: “So you being here assumes you think you can still win?”
“Absolutely,” he replied. —Skysports.