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NASSAU, Bahamas – Tiger Woods moved one step closer to his return to competitive golf after a 10-month hiatus on Wednesday at the Hero World Challenge. He finished 18 holes of a very low-key pro-am pain-free at Albany Golf Club and said once the curtain fell on his evening pro-am dinner, he’d be “all locked in” to compete.
Playing alongside Pawan Munjal, CEO of the tournament’s title sponsor, Woods appeared to be free-swinging, hit his driver fine and even made an eagle (driving the 350-yard seventh hole, which played downwind, making a putt of 20 feet). He added three birdies in his round, hit some terrific approaches into Nos. 2 and 17, a pair of par 3s, and even saved a nice par from the sand at his nemesis hole, the 470-yard 18th, where he made three of his six double bogeys in last year’s event.
Thankfully, after undergoing a back fusion in April, the fourth procedure he’s undergone on his back, Woods said this time around, his physio “isn’t working overtime” at Albany simply getting him ready to play.
Woods, who played 18 holes Sunday and nine holes on Monday and Tuesday, was headed for a light practice session and said he felt as if he was hitting the ball well. A year ago, he shot 4-under 284 to finish 15th, playing well in spurts but showing too much rust (six doubles, eight bogeys).
Many of the younger players in the field, from Justin Thomas to Jordan Spieth to Hideki Matsuyama, have said they’ve looked forward to a day when they could compete against Woods at his best. He’s a long way from that, but most everyone is curious to see how Woods breaks from the gate this week.
“He seems more confident this year the way he’s walking and talking,” said Spieth, who spent time around Woods at the Presidents Cup this fall, where Woods was an assistant to Steve Stricker. “… So we’re all very interested, as we should be, in how it goes this week.”
Added Matsuyama, who as a boy in Japan would watch Woods play before he left for school, “He’s just one of those guys that was always on TV. Obviously, to be able to be playing in the same field with him … I never challenged for a championship or anything with him, but hopefully, I will get that chance down the road.”
Woods said his biggest challenge at the moment is hitting iron shots the correct distances, in part because the golf ball has been “sitting down” in fairways kept longer than normal after the effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria on the island.
Woods was informed that Thomas, the 2016-17 PGA Tour’s player of the year who will play alongside Woods on Thursday at 12:05 p.m., jokingly said that he’ll be excited to watch Woods up close “but I’m also looking forward to trying to kick his ass, to be perfectly honest.”
Woods, feeling that competitor’s fire once more, answered with this: “There’s nothing wrong with that. It goes both ways.”