By Joel Beall
Tiger Woods’ return to golf at the Hero World Challenge rushed in a wave of excitement surrounding the 14-time major winner’s prospects. Some of it was deserved. For a 41-year-old who had missed 300-plus days, his 180-mph ball speed, 300-yard drives and litany of birdies were more than even the staunchest proponents could have wished. Conversely, some of the hype was overwhelming, evidenced in Vegas dropping Woods’ Masters odds to a preposterous 15-to-1 figure.
Regardless, there’s no doubt the Tiger Hype Train has left the station. But a fellow former No. 1, Greg Norman, cautions said train needs to stay on the tracks.
Speaking at his QBE Shootout this week in Naples, Fla., the Shark asserted everyone should take a collective breath regarding Woods’ latest return. “Look, he’s a name. He’s moved the needle for quite a long time in the game of golf,” Norman, 62, said. “Everybody was wondering, you know, the speculation of him saying, ‘I may never play golf again,’ and then all of a sudden he says he’s hitting the ball 330 yards. Big difference from there to there, right?
“I hope he manages his expectations more than everybody else’s expectations being [that] he’s going to come back and be Tiger of past. I think he still has a little bit of time on his side, but not a whole lot.”
Certainly Woods› startling admission at Liberty National that he wasn›t sure about his future has been discussed ad nauseam. It›s also worth mentioning that Tiger›s return at the 2016 Hero inspired its share of optimism after he led the field that year in birdies. Woods ended up playing just three more competitive rounds—a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open and a WD at the Dubai Desert Classic—before opting for a fourth back surgery in April, and hasn›t played an official event since.
Yet, his latest operation seems to be bearing fruit. Woods› swing, along with his stride, were unencumbered, and he said he›s pain-free for the first time in years. Though he finished ninth out of the 18-man Hero field, he beat the likes of Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka. For once, harboring a positive outlook seems justified.
Still, Norman—who›s battled his share of injuries and setbacks in his career—questions if Woods and his body will hold up over the long haul.
“You just hope it continues on for him, because a lot of the stuff he’s done has been self-inflicted,” Norman said. “A lot of the stuff that he’s going through now is more, you know, the wear and tear of the body hitting a lot of golf balls.
«Being a power player, your body breaks down and that’s going to continue to be there because he just got ready to play one event, which was an 18-man field, right? When you start getting up in the 156-man field and the golf courses are a little bit more difficult than Albany, a lot more rough out there, and he’s got to manage his expectations. Instead of trying to power a 7-iron out of the rough 220 yards, your body may … you do that a few times, you never know what’s going to happen after that.”
Although Woods has not announced his next appearance, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines (a course he›s won at eight times as a professional) or the Genesis Open at Riviera (Tiger›s foundation has a presence at the event) are likely candidates. Woods turns 42 on Dec. 30.