NASSAU, the Bahamas — As he made his way to the first tee for his first competitive shot in 466 days, Tiger Woods breezed right by the Golf Channel reporter Notah Begay, his former Stanford teammate and good friend. His focus before the opening round of the Hero World Challenge provided the first sign that Woods was back.
Woods then birdied four of his first eight holes, and held a share of the lead in the 18-man field. But then he missed the fairway and stubbed a chip on his way to his first bogey, on the par-5 ninth. He added two double-bogeys and a bogey after the turn to finish one over par in unusually humid, tranquil conditions.
But there were positive signs in the round. One came on the third hole, when Woods hit a chip to inside five feet to save par. While Woods dealt with the back issues that would sideline him for 15 months, his chipping became a glaring deficiency.
Ernie Els, the four-time major champion who designed the Albany Golf Club course, was following Woods’s round. He applauded the chip at No. 3 and said two holes later, “It looks like he was never away.”
Ninety minutes before Woods teed off in a pairing with Patrick Reed, Woods’s caddie, Joe LaCava, said that he was not sure what to expect. LaCava, who lives in Connecticut and has been on Woods’s bag since the end of 2011, made the trip to Northern California for Woods’s scheduled return in October. LaCava turned around for home two days after arriving when Woods withdrew and described his game as “vulnerable.”
“I’m taking it one day at a time because you never know with these health situations,” LaCava said.
He added: “Obviously the score’s important because he’s trying to win the tournament. But at the end of the day it’s about seeing good shots, getting comfortable with some new equipment and just showing signs that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, especially going forward in 2017.”
Woods, 40, has spent 683 weeks at No. 1, but while he was sidelined, his ranking plummeted to 898th. His main sponsor, Nike, bowed out of the club-making business during that time, prompting Woods to experiment with different woods and a new ball this week.
On the ninth hole, his drive nestled in a toupee-like tuft of grass on a sandy hill. A television spotter was looking for a Nike ball out of habit.
“There’s a ball right there,” he said, pointing into the native area, “but it’s a Bridgestone.”