The recently completed Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas was one of the most closely watched golf tournaments of 2016, even if it was an off-season event with a small field of 18 players. One figure, of course, loomed large throughout, and that was the tournament host, Tiger Woods.
It wasn't just fans and the incorrigibly curious who wanted to see what Woods could do in his first golf competition in 15 months. Players cared, too. Some tweeted in anticipation before the start of the event. Others chimed in throughout the weekend. As Davis Love III said, "We've all been fans of Tiger for a long time, because of what he has accomplished. And we still watch what he does because of what he might be capable of still doing."
Woods, returning after three back operations, overshadowed the fine play of the winner, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who won his fourth tournament in his last five starts. The 2014 winner of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, Matsuyama, ranked No. 6 in the world, was impressive at Albany Club in holding off British Open champion Henrik Stenson. He shot 18 under 270, won by two strokes and provided everyone a reminder of how talented he is.
Tiger is still talented, too.
Sure, he only finished 15th out of 17 players who completed 72 holes. (Another past Memorial winner, Justin Rose, withdrew with a bad back.) But he struck plenty of quality shots and converted 24 birdies, the most in the field. That seemed like the same Tiger who has won 14 major titles and 79 PGA TOUR titles overall, including five in the Memorial Tournament.
A closing 76, the product of rust, fatigue or just being out of practice of playing tournament golf, undid a lot of great play from Woods, who appeared in good shape and still possesses enough power to keep up with the youngsters who pound the driver. The highlight of his week was a bogey-free 7-under 65 in the second round.
"It feels good to be back out here playing again, competing and trying to beat the best players in the world," Woods said. "I missed it. I love it."
Woods turns 41 this month, so he has plenty of time to add to his victory totals. He recently told Charlie Rose in a television interview that he believes he can still catch Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament Founder and Host, in overall majors wins. Woods needs four to tie the Golden Bear. Tall order, especially considering that Jack won three of his 18 after he turned 40.
But it looks like he'll be playing a full schedule in 2017, and one has to think that a visit to Muirfield Village Golf Club in late May is likely if he stays healthy. Woods won three straight editions of the Memorial from 1999-2001 and added wins in 2009 and 2012. His last PGA TOUR victory was at the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
“I thought he swung the golf club fairly decently,” Nicklaus said from the Father-Son Challenge last weekend in Orlando. “He didn’t really play very well as it relates to what he was trying to do, but it was nice to see him back. I think he was pleased to be back.”
Nicklaus acknowledged that the competition is tougher now than ever before.
“He’s got to figure out what he wants to do and how he wants to do it and go play,” Nicklaus said. “The talent is there. That’s not going to leave.”