Focus more on how long Tiger Woods lasts more than his score

NASSAU, Bahamas — One year later, the scene hadn’t changed.

Jordan Spieth paused on the 17th green and looked across the water to the adjacent fairway at Albany Golf Club as Tiger Woods hit his shot to the ninth green, just like he did last year at the Hero World Challenge.

Curiosity is just as high over another return from injury for Woods and how he will fare after a long layoff.

What’s different about the expectations for this comeback — his fifth since he first had back surgery in the spring of 2014 — is they are more about how long Woods will last than what kind of scores he posts.

“He seems more confident this year the way he’s walking and talking,” Spieth said Wednesday in a whisper, having lost his voice to illness. “He seemed more excited at the Presidents Cup before he was even swinging, more anxious. And it seemed to really bother him that he was following doctor’s orders, like he really wanted to get going. So once he was given the go, I think it was exciting for him.

“So we’re all very interested, as we should be, in how it goes for him this week — and obviously, hoping that’s the start.”

The start of his latest comeback is Thursday against an 18-man field that features eight of the top nine players in the world. It’s the first time every shot counts for Woods since a 77 in the Dubai Desert Classic on Feb. 3.

That was his seventh round in his return. He withdrew the next day, citing back spasms, and had a fourth back surgery in April to fuse two disks in his lower back. Woods reports some stiffness and not as much range in motion. But he says he has no pain.

The hype about this return has been fueled by friendly rounds over the last few weeks.

Justin Thomas, the PGA Tour player of the year who will be paired with Woods on Thursday, said fans will be “shocked at how good his game looks.” Rickie Fowler made a casual reference to how far Woods was driving it past him. Brad Faxon, who played with Woods and Dustin Johnson last Friday in a round with President Donald Trump, said Woods looked at ease and held nothing back in his swing, especially with the driver.

Woods had to keep score in his pro-am round Wednesday, and that included a 2 on the 350-yard seventh hole when he drove the green with a breeze at his back and holed a 20-foot putt for eagle.

The tournament is unofficial, though it offers world ranking points. Woods is at No. 1,199 in the world, and even if he finishes last, he’ll move up more than 200 spots into the top 1,000. That still seems odd for a guy who spent 683 weeks at No. 1 in the world.

What enthuses Woods is playing again.

“It’s been a very long time, and I’m really looking forward to getting out there and playing with Justin and having a good time,” Woods said.

After that, it will be time to reassess.

“I just really want to be able to complete this week, play all four days and give myself a chance on that back nine on Sunday to win this thing,” said Woods, whose last victory was more than four years ago at Firestone in the Bridgestone Invitational.

He lasted only three starts when he came back from his first back surgery in the summer of 2014. He lasted two starts after he returned at the end of 2014, and then after playing all four majors in 2015, he had a pair of back surgeries. And when he returned from those last year in the Bahamas, he lasted only three events.

“My physio was certainly working overtime last year after every day and even in the morning, trying to get me ready to go,” Woods said.

Woods said the reason his comeback last year was over so quickly was due primarily to the rough at Torrey Pines and not realizing his disk was in bad shape. He said the deceleration in his swing when he hit out of the rough made the injury worse.

That’s why there’s so much emphasis on his health. He looks built to last, or at least last a little longer. And this is the ideal spot for Woods to return.

There is no cut. Woods is guaranteed four rounds. Interest is high. Pressure is not.

“I think it’s an easy week for Tiger as it is for anybody else versus other weeks — not as many people, the golf course doesn’t beat you up,” Spieth said. “But you can start to see it’s actually, I think, pretty important, these end-of-the-year tournaments to kind of set a precedent for next year.”

That especially holds true for Woods.

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