NASSAU, Bahamas — It’s incredible that we are here, but here we are. After 36 holes in the sun, and just 46 days after being cleared to play golf, Tiger Woods is contending at the Hero World Challenge.
Woods took whatever momentum that remained from Thursday’s 69 to the first tee Friday. He smashed a drive deep into the fairway, spun his wedge back to four feet and cashed the easy birdie. Three more birdies and an eagle later, Woods signed for a four-under 68 (seven-under total). He is tied for fifth in the field of 18, and sits just five strokes behind the leader, Charley Hoffman. One word to describe his day?
“Successful,” Woods said with a grin.
Another applicable word was “control.” Woods — the player who has so often teetered on the edge of control over the last few years — was drawing and fading his ball at will at breezy Albany. For much of the second round, which he played alongside Henrik Stenson, it was Woods — the guy who hasn’t played all year — who was splitting fairways, hitting greens and two-putting for pars. Woods made birdies on three of the first four holes to run away from Stenson, his fellow 41-year-old.
Woods cruised through the rest of his front nine with par saves on 6, 7 and 8, and then played the dictionary-definition of perfect golf on the par-5 9th. First, Woods blistered his drive 320 yards up the right side of the fairway. Then, from 271 yards, Woods crushed a three-wood.
“Talk to me, Joey,” Woods said to his caddie Joe LaCava as the ball reached its apex. He knew it was good. Real good.
The ball landed pin-high and rolled out to 15 feet. Everyone in Nassau felt what was coming next: a purely stroked eagle putt that broke two inches to the right and ran downhill straight into the cup. For the first time since his morning session at the driving range, Woods grinned.
ICYMI:@TigerWoods eagled No. 9 to take the lead at the Hero World Challenge.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) December 1, 2017
It was a front-nine 31, which, stunningly, pushed the name WOODS to the top of the leaderboard. LaCava called the nine “flawless,” admitting he even “got a little jacked up” for the back nine. Did anyone see this coming?
Even LaCava admitted he was surprised. Woods played with his caddie a month ago in Florida and again two weeks later here in the Bahamas. LaCava said Friday that this is the best Woods has played since the surgery.
Even Woods, one of the most unshakably confident players of all-time, admitted he will gladly take his seven-under score and a five-shot deficit. He said that had no idea how he’d play this week. No one did. Even after his solid start Thursday, a pair of balky chip shots offered plenty of reason for reservations.
On Friday morning, about 30 spectators watched as Woods warmed his wedges. At one point he flubbed back-to-back 20-yard pitch shots into a bunker fronting a practice green. A third pitch shot still came up short. Ominous stuff.
But Woods didn’t face that shot once during his round on Friday. He did have a few chip shots from shorter range off the tight lies, which several of his competitors have also struggled with this week. Woods handled them well, saving par from off the green on 8 and 10, and got up-and-down for a birdie on 11, which gave him the outright lead again at nine under and sent Twitter timelines everywhere into a full-blown Tiger frenzy.
As has become the case for Woods at this course, the back nine proved more difficult. Woods made a bogey on the 12th to fall back into a tie for the lead, but rallied for five-straight pars. The most impressive was the last, at 17, where he creatively used a sand wedge to chip his ball off the green and onto a fringe mound, from where it rolled gently toward the hole. He tapped in the two-footer for par.
On 18, a hole he double-bogeyed three times in 2016, Woods found trouble again, fanning his drive right and half-plugging his Bridgestone ball in the loose sand. He wedged back into the fairway, missed the green by a hair and two-putted for a finishing bogey. Surely not a soul on this small island could be disappointed.
Through 36 holes, Woods has hit 16 of 26 fairways and 25 of 36 greens. He’s made nine birdies, that Caribbean-rattling eagle and just four bogeys (and no doubles). He looks in control, he looks comfortable and, in the most surprising development, he looks like he has a chance to win.
“I could have easily gotten to double digits under par,” Woods said. “That would have put me probably one or two back, but I think I’m still in it. We’ve got two more days and I think it’s supposed to blow a little harder tomorrow. If that’s the case, I think a good solid round should get me up in there.”
In fact, the conditions are expected to remain much the same, but it’s hard to fathom a more comfortable setup for him. With the small field, a course he knows well (and which is relatively easy) and the sparsely attended, calm setting, it all seems to be working.
Woods’s four back surgeries are drifting into the rearview. He popped an Advil midway through his round — “It’s what my surgeon says to do,” he said. “He’s good at what he does” — but there have been no winces, grabs, or anything that would signify pain.
And so he optimistically moves on to the weekend at this now-even-more-significant event. Woods’s return was always the lead story, but the tone has very much changed.
Ask Charley Hoffman, who is playing Tiger’s event for the first time and leads after rounds of 69 and 63. When he tees it up Saturday, he’ll be Tiger fans’ public enemy No. 1. “To be completely honest with you, I said at the beginning of the week I hope he wins,” Hoffman said.
“Hopefully I can stop him from winning.”