This Comeback for Tiger is Starting to Feel Real
When Tiger Woods announced at the end of October he once again would be mounting a comeback, there was modest excitement. News stations across the country gave it a brief mention. But expectations were tempered. Golf fans had been down this road before, left only with disappointment, yearning for that Sunday charge they had grown so accustomed to seeing that made Sundays appointment television.
Following the final round of the Honda Classic at PGA National, hope has been restored. This time, this comeback, following Tiger's 4th back surgery, is starting to gain momentum and feel like a real possibility.
For starters, the Honda Classic was the first time Tiger had teed it up in back to back weeks on the PGA Tour since February 2017. That alone was a positive sign that this time his back, at least early on, is holding up.
Tiger had shown some positive signs right off the bat in this return. There was a brief stint where he actually held the lead in his first competitive golf in 10 months in the Hero's World Challenge. He would eventually finish 9th in the 18-player field.
Official tour event success, or rather progress, would follow shortly thereafter. A top-25 finish at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Since Torrey was a course where he'd won 8 times before, many didn't give Tiger the credit he deserved for the effort. But his 2nd tournament in, and first official event on tour after a 10 month layoff and 4th back surgery, was a pretty good starting point. Tiger also managed to show the flair for the dramatic at Torrey ... providing 4 birdies over his final 9 holes just to make the cut.
Talk, and hope, that this comeback was in full swing, calmed down after missing the cut at Riviera for the Genesis Open. Tiger struggled from the tee, hitting only 13/28 fairways, and 16/36 greens in regulation. He was all over the course in his short stay. But Tiger was quick to point out, Rivera had never exactly been his cup of tea.
Cue PGA National. Over the last 4 days at the Honda Classic, belief is starting to build that Tiger is closer than most had previously thought to being back.
Tiger said after Thursday's round it was the best he'd hit the ball since his return. Sure it was a small sample size. But it was a positive sign, and he posted a positive result with an even par round of 70.
Friday brought more progress: Tiger makes the cut and advances to the weekend. But it was in the final 2 rounds where the golf world began to see something is different here. Saturday's round of 69 was perhaps a true turning point - Tiger's 1st round in the 60's in an official PGA Tour event in 917 days.
That led to another building block - one which golf fans had been without for far too long - Tiger playing meaningful golf on Sunday. It came complete with a signature Tiger charge. It began right off the bat, with a 20-foot birdie putt on the par 4 1st to start the day. A 9-footer for birdie followed on the par 4 4th. Another 9-footer for birdie on the par 4 8th. Then came an 18-footer for birdie on 14 to get within 3 of the leader. Here we go.
Unfortunately the infamous Bear Trap (holes 15-17) at PGA National eventually squashed Tiger's bid. The Bear Trap - named so in honor of it's difficulty and in tribute to the Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus - is known to be aruably the toughest 3 hole stretch anywhere on the PGA Tour. Tiger was it's latest victim. He played the Bear Trap +8 over the course of the week, including +3 on Sunday. Had Tiger managed to play that stretch at even par this week, he would tied for first through 72 holes and been part of a 3-way playoff.
Instead, Tiger settled for a 12th place finish - his best since his return. Even more positive than the finish, the way Tiger had command of his irons, the way he was shaping his shots like the old days, and how he appeared locked in like we haven't seen in sometime.
It was at the Honda Classic back in 2014 where all of Tiger's back issues initially surfaced. That year back issues forced him to withdraw from competition in the final round. Less than a month later he would undergo the first of 4 back surgeries.
Three years later, it's that same tournament that looks to have signaled his return. Tiger's swing speed during the week was just over 128 mph. That was tops in the field. It led to finishing 2nd in driving distance as well at 318.9 yards. He also led the field in proximity to the hole at 29'3". More encouraging, while still in contention on Sunday, he hit 9/14 fairways, and 14/18 greens in regulation.
All positive signs that Tiger is taking huge steps forward at an accelerated rate. With the Masters just over a month away, the timing couldn't be better. Too soon to contend at Augusta? Perhaps. But the signs are there. The first major of 2018 could be the next stepping stone.