WINDERMERE, Fla. — Tiger Woods didn’t even have a club in his hand when he passed an important test Wednesday at Isleworth.
After hitting a fairway metal off the 10th tee, Woods gingerly stepped through a flower bed and then hopped down a 4-foot wall and trotted to the clubhouse to use the bathroom. It was that kind of leap – from a bunker at Firestone – that jarred back muscles and ultimately forced yet another injury-induced layoff.
His golf Wednesday wasn’t too bad, either.
Woods swung freely and easily during the pro-am at the Hero World Challenge, his first time walking 18 holes since he missed the cut Aug. 9 at the PGA Championship.
”It felt good to be out there,” Woods said. ”I took that much time off right after the PGA and built up my body and made a few adjustments on my swing and hit some good shots today.”
The real test is Thursday in the first round of an unofficial event with 18 elite players from the top 50 in the world, and one big buzz because of the tournament host.
Woods has slipped to No. 24 in the world. He never lost his ranking as golf’s biggest draw.
”I think if he starts swinging it better and starts feeling good about what he’s doing again, it won’t take long for him to be at the top of the game again,” Steve Stricker said.
This is the fifth time in five years Woods has returned from an injury, and the second time this year. He came back too early from back surgery in June and missed two cuts in the three events he played.
Health no longer seems to be the issue. The biggest question is the swing.
Woods parted with swing coach Sean Foley and has brought on Chris Como, who walked the pro-am with him and occasionally chatted with him in the fairway. Woods said he looked at tape dating all the way back to his amateur days and described his goal for a new swing as ”new, but old.”
Stricker saw him briefly on the practice range earlier in the week and felt as though he was looking back in time.
”Looks a lot similar to early 2000s to me, from the side when I was watching,” Stricker said.
That was when many believe Woods was at his best. He won seven majors in a four-year stretch from 1999-2002, and no one was close to him in the game. Woods turns 39 at the end of the month, and he joked Tuesday that ”Father Time remains undefeated.” He physically is not the same player he was at age 24.
What Stricker noticed was a swing that appeared more natural and less technical.
”Looked like the swing was going through a lot freer, like it was on a better path,” Stricker said.
How long it takes for it to translate to low scores or even trophies remains to be seen. It took Woods at least a year before he was up to speed on wholesale changes under Butch Harmon, Hank Haney and Foley.
”This is what, his fourth teacher?” Stricker said. ”I’m sure he’s still going to have some issues going forward.”
The tournament has moved from Sherwood Country Club in California to the course that Woods called home for 16 years. Isleworth is considered a tough golf course, though there are more forward tees in play to help with gallery movement. Woods is used to playing it all the way back and smashing driver. He wound up in a few bunkers Wednesday that typically are not in play for him.
The field is missing the new No. 1 – Rory McIlroy – along with Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia, who rarely play.
Zach Johnson beat Woods in a playoff last year at Sherwood after holing out for par from a drop zone on the 18th hole. Hard to imagine that would be the last time Woods had a top-10 finish. Then again, no one expected the back pain that led to surgery, and recovery issues that kept him out of golf the last four months.
His appearance has led to the most media interest in golf since the Ryder Cup. All 50 seats were occupied for Woods’ news conference on Tuesday, with 30 more people lining both sides of the tent.
”As a fan of the game and a guy that admires what he’s done, I would be interested to see what he does this week,” Johnson said. ”Just glad he’s playing and I hope he’s healthy. That’s the main thing.”