NASSAU, Bahamas — It’s just one round, and you can take from it what you wish.
Tiger Woods returned to the world of competitive golf Thursday at the Hero World Challenge, an 18-man event, and finished his opening round at 1-over 73.
If you’re pulling for Woods, as are many fans, most of his competitors, and pretty much every golf executive, there’s plenty to build on, including a front nine in which he carded four birdies, three of them in a three-hole stretch. For a time, he even held a share of the lead.
If you’re sick of Woods/ready to focus on the next generation, there’s this: after his hot start, Woods gave back two strokes in three holes, bogeying two par 5s. Then he double-bogeyed two of the last three holes to finish 17th of 18 players. And he’s playing in the friendliest environs imaginable: a small-field, no-cut event at which he’s the host. It’s like Springsteen singing in Jersey, or LeBron shooting in Cleveland – total homefield advantage.
Let’s ditch the spin for a bit, then, and go straight with facts: Woods finished 1 stroke over par, nine strokes off the lead. He carded five birdies against two bogeys and a pair of doubles. On 18, sitting 1-under, he pulled out driver when he didn’t need to and … deposited in the water on the left, then nearly drained his par chip on the fly – a mix of good, bad and bad luck, all on one hole. Kind of like his round.
Thirty-three on the front, 40 on the back.
Now, let’s leave behind the mind and go with the heart. What was fascinating about Woods’ first round is how familiar it all seemed. At last year’s British Open, Woods basically limped around St. Andrews, looking lost, lines of worry furrowing his face.
But at Albany in the Bahamas, a course whose sawgrass-topped dunes bear some slight resemblance to St. Andrews’ gorse-laden hills, Woods showed none of that weakness, none of that sense of impending defeat. He walked with that classic straight-backed, eyes-forward military gait, he held his pose when he drove, he walked behind his putts, and he even snuck in a subtle fist pump.
“It was good to see him play well, especially through that [front-nine] stretch,” Patrick Reed, Woods’ playing partner, told Yahoo Sports. “But he’s got some work to do.”
The praise began flowing as soon as Woods carded his first birdie. And by the time he left the 18th green, the golf world was exhaling, if only because Woods didn’t embarrass himself:
From what I saw today I see Tiger winning more tournaments and at least one more major, lot's of positives today.
— Hank Haney (@HankHaney) December 1, 2016
Woods only slammed one club, after the understandably frustrating dunked 18th tee shot, and didn’t curse himself for wayward shots — and yes, there were a few — because he didn’t need to walk the tightrope of perfection-or-disaster. In short, this was — in style if not in substance — the old Tiger Woods, not the guy who’s been cosplaying him the last few years.
“Once I got into the feel of the round, got off to a nice start, I was 4‑under par there for a little bit,” Woods said. “Unfortunately hit the ball in three bushes and had a water ball, so consequently I let a really good round slip away at the end.”
Woods denied that he ran out of juice toward the end of the round, claiming errors in execution rather than fatigue. “I just made some really, if you look at it, some really silly mistakes, mistakes I don’t normally make,” he said, “but I haven’t played in a while.”
Still, let’s be realistic here. If you saw Michael Jordan draining jumpers in a charity basketball game, you wouldn’t assume he’s ready to re-sign with the Bulls. And the fact that Woods briefly held the lead on a Thursday doesn’t mean he’s ready to hang with the likes of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth over a full 72 holes. He’s got plenty of work to do, and no scheduled plans for when we’ll see him next after this weekend. But if the next three days run like this one, the wait won’t be very long at all.
“It felt good to have that adrenaline surging through the system again,” Woods said. “It’s been a long time.”
For the moment, though, we’ve got Tiger Woods back. Considering how very close Woods was to hanging it all up not so long ago, that in itself is a small victory. And for now, small victories are where Woods will have to start.
“He’s close,” Reed said. “He’s really close.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.