PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – At the Hero World Challenge in December, Justin Thomas voiced an opinion held by many of today's young, talented superstars who grew up admiring Tiger Woods's brilliance from the time they were in diapers.
"I'm looking forward to trying to kick his ass, to be perfectly honest," Thomas said.
Former World No. 1 David Duval, a winner of 13 titles during the heart of the Tiger era, had a warning: be careful what you wish for.
"I've heard some of these young guys talk about they wish they could've played against Tiger in his prime. The hell you do?" said Duval, now a Golf Channel commentator, except he actually used a different four-letter word.
Thomas's wish to go head-to-head with Woods when he's at his best didn't materialize on Thursday at Riviera Country Club. Thomas, the 24-year-old reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, had a front-row seat alongside Rory McIlroy in a star-studded threesome to witness Woods’s rollercoaster round. When the dust settled, he signed for a one-over 72.
"I would say he's a pretty good ways away," Thomas said.
Woods was a little more generous in his assessment, terming the round "all right," given it was just his second start of the season after missing more than 10 months following fusion vertebrae surgery, his fourth career back procedure.
Woods, 42, is making his first appearance in his hometown event since 2006, at the same Riviera course where he made his PGA Tour debut as a 16-year-old amateur in 1992. That pent-up demand led to a 67-percent spike in advance ticket sales, according to tournament officials. Sunshine covered the links like honey on hotcakes and the galleries swarmed to see the latest iteration of Tiger's golf swing, which some observers have tabbed Tiger 5.0. They bore witness to the good, the bad and the ugly.
Woods opened quickly with a birdie at the short par-4 10th to jump into red figures, but it would be short-lived as he played the next two holes in three over. Even the casual observer can detect that Woods is generating more power with his arms and his speed has returned. He blasted a 320-yard 3-wood at No. 13 that split the fairway and set up a birdie. He made five birdies on the day. His distance control with his wedges looked sharp and his short game saved him from many sins, most notably a delicate flop shot at the par-3 4th hole. The chip yips that had infected his game during his previous comeback attempt no longer appear to be a concern. His putter delivered from short range; he didn't miss in eight attempts between 4-8 feet.
Best of all, for those Tiger supporters out there, is Woods swung the club like a man who doesn't fear that his back could go out again at any moment. Two swings in particular stood out. When Woods sprayed a tee shot to the right off the 12th tee, he aimed left and lashed at the ball with an Arnold Palmeresque whirlybird finish. Later, when his tee shot at the fifth buried in a thick bed of grass, Woods hacked violently at it. No one ever would have guessed that at the Presidents Cup in October, he had just begun hitting 60-degree wedges and wondered whether he would be able to mount another comeback.
"It all started at Torrey," said Woods, who finished T-23 in his 2018 debut there. "Some of those shots I went after at Torrey, I mean, I didn't feel anything and that's the confidence I need, that validation that I'm good."
Ah, but there also was the bad and the ugly during a round that caused fresh concern whether Woods can find a fairway. He hit eight of 14 fairways, and just 7 of 18 greens. He fanned his tee shot to the right at the 11th and never found the ball as it apparently hung up in a eucalyptus tree. Woods made double bogey.
"Eucalyptus don't normally keep golf balls, but this one did," Woods said.
To his credit, Woods battled to get back to level par after a birdie at No. 1, his 10th hole of the day. But his driver, with which could barely find the planet in San Diego last month, had another case of the rights. Woods launched one so far right at No. 9 that it landed in a right fairway bunker on the 10th hole. Former PGA Tour pro Joe Ogilvie happened to be walking by at that moment and said, "I couldn't hit it there if I aimed there." Woods keeps stubbornly lashing away with the big stick. Remember when nobody could drive it like him? Woods continues to be much more effective when he hits three-wood or an iron off the tee, and it makes you wonder when he will start shaping shots to get into play rather than trying to keep up with Thomas and McIlroy in the driving distance stats.
"He's obviously not driving it well," Thomas said.
What Woods called "a few silly bogeys," had him looking up at the likes of Dominic Bozelli and Tom Hoge, who whipped Woods by five and held the early lead with matching 67s. We shouldn’t read too much into one round in the second full-field tournament back for Woods, but it didn't stop McIlroy from reminding the media during his post-round press conference that the man who entered the week No. 550 in the World Ranking possesses all the talent necessary to make his greatest comeback.
"It doesn't feel like five years ago that he won five tournaments and was Player of the Year," McIlroy said. "He remembers how to do this and his body's allowing him to do this, and there's no doubt in my mind that he'll make a little bit of noise this year."