NASSAU, Bahamas — The conjecture in golf circles for years typically touched on the idea of Tiger Woods reinventing himself as a golfer, dialing back his power game to be more precise and efficient, highlighting other skills that would still allow him to be successful.
To borrow from the mantra adopted long ago by basketball star Michael Jordan: go from a dunking wizard to a jump shooter.
But if four rounds in the Bahamas showed us anything, Woods still wants to fly with the big boys.
Who knew the 41-year-old would emerge from a 10-month absence with his driver as the best weapon in his arsenal?
There are numerous reasons for Woods to be optimistic after his return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge, where a 4-under-par 68 on Sunday at Albany Golf Club helped him finish tied for ninth in the 18-player field.
When doubt persisted about Tiger’s ability to play 72 holes or break 80 or any of the other numerous negatives that floated about the Caribbean, to beat the likes of PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas and No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson over four days is no small feat.
“I’m excited,” Woods said afterward. “This is the way I’ve been playing at home, and when I came out here and played. I was playing very similar to this. Not quite hitting it as far, but I had the adrenaline going and, overall, I’m very pleased.”
The power he unleashed with his driver — and some of the other shots he launched into orbit with his 2-iron — was a remarkable sign of renewal, especially if you understand where he has been since the first of four back surgeries in 2014 and all the struggles he has had keeping the ball in play.
Woods had no trouble keeping pace with Thomas, who ranked eighth in driving distance on the PGA Tour in 2017 by averaging nearly 310 yards off the tee. The 2-iron second shot Woods hit at the par-5 third hole — from 272 yards — screamed into the air, a towering shot that few in the game possess without a lofted club.
“He looks like he is not coming back from where he has been,” said ESPN golf analyst Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open winner. “He looks comfortable, flexible. He has speed.”
While there was a sense that Woods would need to beat his younger, accomplished peers with finesse rather than power, having those shots will be significant as he attempts to return to full field events in 2018.
For one, it opens up the possibility of contending on some of the tour’s bigger ballparks, not just ones more suited for accuracy and course management — the default position many expected Woods would need to embrace.
And it gives him a chance, at some point, to exert just a hint of the intimidation factor that served him so well throughout a career that has seen him win 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour titles.
“It’s nice to get back out there where I can take it over a couple of corners and extend one on the par-5s,” he said. “I was a little frustrated with my iron game; that has been the hallmark of my career. It’s still surprising how far I’m hitting it, and I have to make those adjustments. You add in the adrenaline, and you’re thinking there is no way you hit it that way. Those are things I have to get a hold of.”
Earlier in the week, Woods joked about being just a YouTube golfer to his children, 10-year-old Samantha and 8-year-old Charlie, who are not old enough to remember him at his best. But this week they got to see Woods in person, and this wasn’t just highlight-reel video stuff.
Not to get all technical, but Woods’ ball speed was approaching 180 mph, which puts him in the same ballpark or ahead of many of the young players who have been racking up major championships in recent years.
“Lots of positives,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie who in recent weeks made trips to South Florida and Albany in the Bahamas to work with Woods. “He drove it very well, got his speed back, was hitting the ball for the most part where he was looking, was hitting it both ways. His distance control got better each day, and he’s hitting it out with the young boys.”
Among the more impressive aspects to his comeback was the intensity Woods brought to his first tournament since withdrawing from the Dubai Desert Classic in February. Despite not getting a doctor’s clearance to hit full shots until October, Woods went right to work.
He said there was one period where he played golf on nine straight days. LaCava made those trips to work with him. Woods also had plenty of support from his peers, who prodded him to play and practice. “They would come over to the house and we’d have chipping and putting contests,” he said.
All of that is great, but the usual disclaimers are necessary. Albany has five par-5s, is not particularly long and is not the type of test he will face during the course of a PGA Tour season.
There were just 18 players in the field, several of whom were not fully engaged in the task. This tournament is meant to be a reward for a great season, and there is not typically a lot of heavy lifting involved, as important as it might have been to Woods.
“It’s exciting, but you have to try and temper it a little bit,” LaCava said. “We felt the same way last year. Let’s not get too excited. But you have to like what you see, right? There are more reasons to be optimistic.”
Not the least of which was the way he hit the ball off the tee. Given all the time he was away, it bodes well for the future.
While working on the jump shot remains important, it is good for Woods to know he still has the potential to soar above the rim.