First, some backstory.
In 2015, Tiger Woods arrived at the Hero World Challenge an injured man. It was the first time his event would be held at Albany in the Bahamas, but the tournament host — just a few weeks from turning 40 — was coming off surgeries and nowhere close to competition-ready. Instead he spent the week monitoring the action from a golf cart and delivered an honest and decidedly bleak state of affairs in his press conference.
“The hardest part for me is there’s really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build toward,” Woods said. “There is no timetable,” he added.
I mentioned that year’s presser to Rory McIlroy on Tuesday of this year’s Hero World Challenge, and he recited Woods’ takeaway quote word for word.
“I think everything beyond this will be gravy,” he recalled Woods saying six years earlier.
The Washington Post headline said it all: Tiger Woods’s latest press conference is a masterclass in sadness
The Hero World Challenge has served as the site of both promise and misery for Woods. A year after that doomsday presser he made his competitive return for four rounds at Albany. Tiger fans found comfort in the fact that Woods walked 72 holes. He even led the field in birdies! But he mixed in a slew of double bogeys, too, and finished in 15th out of 18. The comeback stalled just months later. He wouldn’t play 72 holes again for 12 months.
But when he did reappear in 2017, Woods did so at the Hero again. He worked his way into contention at the halfway mark, played his way out of contention with a Saturday 75 and finished the week T9 — with plenty to build on.
You know what happened next: The Comeback. Woods’ competitive year in 2018, including a Tour Championship win. His Masters (and Zozo) in 2019. Woods climbed as high as No. 6 in the world. He somehow reentered the conversation for world’s best active golfer.
So it’s only fitting that now, in 2021, this is where Woods is staging the latest chapter in his comeback. First he made his return to the public eye at Tuesday’s presser — a savvy place to do so because Woods is in a controlled environment with a small press corps, there are limited fans, he can draw extra attention to his tournament and foundation and it doesn’t hurt that he’s generally in charge of everything.
Still, in Tuesday’s remarks Woods downplayed any immediate return to competitive golf.
“I’ll put it to you this way: As far as playing at the Tour level, I don’t know when that’s going to happen,” he said. He was self-deprecating about his swing speed, said he’d been playing from the forward tees and seemed intent on lowering expectations.
But Albany has two ends to its range. The side nearer the clubhouse is where most of the action happens; that’s where this week’s players and pro-am competitors get loose. And on Wednesday a figure in white and grey appeared on the back of the range, warming up a familiar swing.
Take this next bit with a grain of salt, because it’s not like Woods was hitting in his home simulator and someone snuck a photo. I’m sure he knew there was a good chance he’d be spotted.
Still, unlike Woods’ swing video from last Sunday, this version wasn’t staged. A Tour staffer noticed Woods and pressed record because why not. Later, Team Tiger gave the okay to release the tapes. And so there we were at 8:26 p.m. EST, watching Woods rip 3-woods down the range. Word spread fast.
Full swing Woods. pic.twitter.com/oTAoL7eeCa— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) December 2, 2021
The 23-second video tells us plenty. The simple fact that he is insisting on practicing this week suggests he lacks neither a plan nor determination. The camera angle is a reminder that Woods didn’t know he was being filmed. The wedges and driver leaning on the cart suggest a through-the-bag session. And the speed with which he’s swinging is evidence that he’s moving quite well — and that he still hasn’t kicked the habit of telling the public half-truths (at best) when it comes to his health.
For Woods fans, it’s all good news. But with Woods, good news can never be enough on its own. In this case it’s accompanied by a side of, “When is he going to play?” Speculation was already running wild before the video that Woods (and his son Charlie) would tee it up at the PNC Championship. Tiger Insider Notah Begay implied on Golf Channel that the PNC was a possibility, especially given Charlie could take care of most tee shots in the format. Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis suggested more of the same. Despite Woods’ low-expectations presser, he had left the door ajar for a “hit-and-giggle” appearance in the nearer future. And there was Eamon Lynch’s Golfweek report stating the tournament was holding a spot for the team of Woods/Woods.
Woods is hardly Tour-ready. Nobody is suggesting that. He still took frequent breaks in his golf cart between swing sessions on Wednesday, sitting and resting in the Bahamian sunshine. But what’s striking is that we’ve seen him in worse health at this very tournament. And while his playing the PNC is certainly no lock, it’s clear he has future competitive golf on the mind.
Woods’ young peers were effusive.
“Look, whether he plays out on Tour full time or not, he’s still Tiger and he brings so much energy and life,” said Collin Morikawa, Woods’ most recently-crowned heir apparent.
“I think he said yesterday [a limited schedule] that he feels like he can get himself ready for. I mean, it’s smart, it’s smart to do that,” said McIlroy, providing some realistic optimism.
But Xander Schauffele put it best.
“I just saw him yesterday and I told him he’s the most stubborn person that I know,” Schauffele said. “And that he’s trying to — you know, basically he’s using this situation as motivation to try and come back and win and be that guy because he’s always been that guy.”
Now we wait and see.
This article originally appeared on Golf.com.