Perhaps the smartest conclusion would be to avoid drawing any from the Hero World Challenge. A year ago, after equalling tournament winner Hideki Matsuyama for number of birdies over four rounds, Tiger Woods departed the tournament supposedly on the verge of a great renaissance.
Woods spoke positively about the future, just as the wave of expectation surrounding him rose once more. By the start of February, Woods cut a stricken figure as he limped from the Dubai Desert Classic whilst unable to counteract back spasms beyond 18 holes. It would be easy to infer that Woods’s lowest ebb, a driving under the influence charge that occurred in May, somehow triggered the upturn in personal and professional fortunes that has subsequently transpired. Even that requires context; Woods today leaps inside the top 670 in the world. He has been No1 for a record 683 cumulative weeks.
Woods’s Hero showing last year featured rounds of 73, 65, 70 and 76 for a total of four over par. He exited Albany on Sunday evening having carded 69, 68, 75 and 68 to aggregate eight under. Woods’s long game, especially when produced with an effortless swing for a high and booming draw, this time appeared the equal to anyone in a stellar field with drives regularly pitching 295 yards from the tee.
For all he has adopted a more open approach in recent times, there remains a Woods arrogance to the point of dismissal. He made cutting reference towards “intelligent people” who had suspected embarrassment may be forthcoming from Thursday onwards. “I knew how I was playing at home, I knew how I was hitting shots, I knew what was going on,” Woods insisted.
Yet even Woods’s caddie, Joe LaCava, admitted an element of surprise. “I had a little advantage of seeing him twice in the last month, so I knew it was getting better and getting closer,” said LaCava. “But I didn’t think it was going to be quite as good as it is at the moment. We’re much more optimistic going forward than we were last year.”
The 41-year-old’s key statistics were decent if not spectacular; the finding of 46 of 72 greens in regulation, 34 from 52 fairways and a total of 100 putts. Woods was never the most accurate of drivers but, crucially, he could hit the ball further than anyone else and putt better than anyone else. It seems a huge leap of faith to suggest either will be the case before the unlikely event that Woods takes to seniors golf.
The class of today may be in two minds as to whether they actually want an imperious Woods as part of the scene. Justin Thomas was reasonable enough to admit as much. “I’ve never played against that Tiger,” said the USPGA champion. “I don’t want that Tiger just because judging by the statistics, not many of us would have that great of a chance.
“But at the same time, obviously we want to be able to play against him and battle down the stretch with him. I mean, that’s the person that I was making putts on the putting green when I was six, seven, eight years old pretending to beat. So it would be pretty fun to do it in person.”
Tiger Woods drives off the tee at the 14th.Photograph: Dante Carrer/AP
The only time to paint an adequate picture of where Woods in his current condition sits in a competitive sense is after the playing of a full tournament schedule. Wide fairways and essentially a low-key Bahamas event – typically epic attention on Woods aside – doesn’t compare to Augusta National. It doesn’t compare to Carnoustie, the most ferocious of venues which will host the Open in July. How will a player who hasn’t won a major since 2008 and any tournament at all since 2013 react when back in the position to close out?
Nobody, including Woods, yet knows if apparently strong physical condition can withstand regular visits to PGA Tour events. When Woods admits the average age for a spinal fusion, as he underwent in his last surgery, is 58 there seems an obvious implication for his sporting longevity even before the stress as placed on backs by golf swings is factored in.
Rickie Fowler, who prevailed on Sunday, revealed Woods carded 65 during a recent practice round in Florida. It was typical, and telling, that Fowler’s champion’s press conference was dominated by questions regarding another player.
“One of the times we played 18 holes, I was going back to work out and he went and played another nine,” Fowler said. “I think he sharpened me up a little bit. I’d gotten a little scared of how good he was playing at home, thought I needed to start playing a little bit better.
“Tiger’s still going to have that similar effect when you see his name on the board coming down the last nine holes and being in the mix. You know he’s not scared. He’s done it, he’s been there before. I wouldn’t say guys are scared. I think they’re more excited about it and having him back and having the chance to play against Tiger, and we want to see him play well. It’s only better for our game.
“I want all the guys I play against to be the best that they can be. I want to be able to beat guys that are playing at their best at that time. Whether Tiger can get back to where he was in early 2000s, we don’t know. Could he get close? Possibly.”
This represented a seriously bold statement. What can be said is that Woods stepped back into the spotlight in stronger fashion than many anticipated. The certainties end there. Woods’s own painful, recurring tales of woe urge caution.