NASSAU, Bahamas — Is this the new normal? It just might be. For the third time in four days, Tiger Woods showed masterful control of his ball to shoot a round in the 60s, closing the Hero World Challenge with a four-under 68 Sunday.
Though he finished with back-to-back bogeys, Woods made six birdies and an eagle during a torrid start Sunday, which was more than enough to cap off a memorable and encouraging comeback from fusion back surgery. His future as a competitive golfer, it would seem, is as bright as it has been in years.
“I’m excited,” Woods said after his round. “This is the way I’ve been playing at home.”
If it feels like a weird world compared to just five days ago, that’s because it is.
Sunday provided the calmest conditions of the week, and Woods took advantage with his newfound long and straight (!) drives, hitting every fairway on the front nine. His driver helped him convert birdies on the 3rd, 5th and 9th holes, but no tee shot was more impressive than his smoke job on the 7th.
The hole has played as a drivable par-4 all week and, entering the day, Woods hadn’t taken advantage once. With a slight wind at his back, Woods launched a missile into the air, high and soaring. It bounced on the front edge of the green, rolling out to the center some 30 feet above the hole.
In front of the seemingly-only-gallery-on-the-course, Woods played his putt with two feet of break. Anything more would have missed, but the lip grabbed enough of his ball, circling it 180-degrees and in. Woods fell to his knees and threw both arms in the air, a move reminiscent of his many career highlights wearing red and black.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) December 3, 2017
“I’ll take that,” Woods said of his eagle after the round. In parring the 8th and birdieing the 9th, Woods shot 31 on the front nine for the second time this week, an affirmation that his 69-68 start to the week was no fluke. Though he made a double bogey on the 10th — his first and only double of the week — Woods added three birdies on his back nine.
In sum, Woods beat eight golfers at an event where he beat just two a year ago. Let that be one simple metric by which we all recalibrate our Woods-o-meters. He was the story all week, even on Sunday when Rickie Fowler posted a closing (and victorious) 61.
Fowler might have to get used to that in this weird, new world. It’s possible he already has. Fowler has seen plenty of Woods — possibly more than anyone else — during this comeback. His two-word quote — “way by” — in reference to Woods’s outdriving him gave the hype train a firm push down the tracks. Fowler and Woods have played several matches together in the Jupiter area, and though Fowler never lost, the clashes were clearly competitive. On Sunday, Fowler said, “I knew that [he] was going to be good enough to surprise a lot of people.”
Woods missed just one fairway Sunday (two if you consider him driving the 7th green a “missed fairway”). But what was most impressive about his final round might have been that it felt pressure-free, casual even, like those Florida rounds with Fowler. On the 1st tee, Woods chatted up Thomas about his retro-looking shoes. They joked about Jordan Spieth’s hairline and how Charlie Woods’s favorite hobby is fishing. Ten minutes later, Woods smiled and chuckled to himself as his first birdie try lipped away from the hole.
After Woods and Thomas nuked drives off the tee at the par-5 9th, the newly released College Football Playoff became the focus. As an Alabama grad, Thomas was excited. Woods wanted to know the order of the four teams.
Both players hit woods with their second shots. Thomas proceeded to make eagle, admitting, “I’m so f—king pumped right now” in the process. Woods got up and down from the sand for birdie and a outward 31. When nine holes that casual amounts to that kind of score, it’s probably a good sign.
So what’s next?
For starters, a bunch of those friendly games down in Florida. It’s not yet clear when and where Woods will play another sanctioned event, but January seems like a good guess. Between then and now, we’ve got these four rounds as the starter to what it’s not unreasonable to expect will be a grander meal.
“Based on what we’ve seen,” said Woods’s caddie Joe LaCava, “you have to be optimistic, right?”