Tiger Woods has reason for optimism after finishing 8 under at Hero World Challenge

Woods got his swing speed back and showed positive signs in return to tournament golf.

No issues with his power.

Nope, after a 72-hole romp around Albany Golf Course, there remain few issues for Tiger Woods, few questions as he heads into the new year. In his first competitive action in 10 months, and coming just seven months following spinal fusion surgery, Woods provided plenty of blasts from the past and upbeat glimpses into his future inside the ropes.

With a 4-under-par 68 on Sunday, Woods finished the Hero World Challenge at 8 under and in a tie for ninth in the 18-man field that lured eight of the top 10 players in the world. Despite finishing 10 shots behind winner Rickie Fowler, who closed with a course-record 61, Woods was beaming after signing for rounds of 69-68-75-68 on this island paradise.

“I’m excited,” said Woods, who was followed the entire round by his two kids and world No. 1 Rafa Nadal. “This is the way I’ve been playing at home and when I came out here and played, I was playing very similar to this. Not quite hitting it as far, but I had the adrenaline going and overall I’m very pleased.”

More: Tiger Tracker: Woods shoots 68 in final round

More: Out-of-sync Tiger Woods loses ground at Hero World Challenge

Unlike last year’s aborted comeback that also began here at Albany, Woods is healthier this time around. There was no hesitation at all when he had to go after a shot from an awkward lie, no hesitation when he dialed up his ball speed past 180 mph. This time was different.

“I’m excited the way this week has gone on. With not only the competitive rounds but also all the functions at night. I still got my training in. It was a very good week,” said Woods, who finished with 17 birdies, two eagles, 11 bogeys and one double-bogey. “I really drove it well and I really putted well. I know I had one day where I didn’t have the speed on the greens, but I hit a lot of good putts this week.”

He’s excited going forward, too. Woods will sit down with his team to decide where and when he’ll play in 2018. If history provides an indication, he will tee it up in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego the last week of January. His last major triumph – the 2008 U.S. Open – was at Torrey Pines and he’s won the Farmers on seven occasions. In the meantime, he’ll continue to work in the gym and at the Medalist Golf Club in Florida.

And Woods wasn’t the only one excited about how the week unfolded.

“He’s obviously a lot more upbeat, a lot more positive, a lot healthier than he was last year at this time,” said Justin Thomas, the reigning PGA Tour player of the year who was paired with Woods in the first and final rounds. “He’s got a lot of energy. It’s just so weird to say that you’re excited for somebody else’s year, but it will be a fun year and I hope we duel it out a lot this upcoming year. … 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 6, 7, 8 years old pretending to beat.”

The man that walked every step with Woods this week was excited, too.

“Lots of positives,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “Drove it very well, got his speed back, was hitting the ball for the most part where he was looking, was hitting it both ways. And he’s hitting it out with the young boys.

“He’s driving it 315ish off the tee, which makes life easier. You are always expecting good things, and I had a little advantage seeing him twice in the last month, so I knew it was getting better and getting closer. But I didn’t think it was going to be quite as good as it is at the moment.”

And LaCava didn’t hesitate when asked if Woods could win in 2018.

“Of course,” he said. “And that’s coming more from a health standpoint. And he has the equipment dialed in. We’re much more optimistic going forward than we were last year.”

So is Fowler, who started the final round with seven consecutive birdies, finished with 11 and won by four shots. In his only other start in the 2017-18 season, he finished second in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. He’s coming off one of his best statistical years and he’ll be eyeing his first major in 2018.

He’ll also keep his eye on Woods. Fowler played five rounds of golf with him in Florida the past two months. He liked what he saw and expects to see more of the same next year.

“I’ve gotten a little scared of how good he was playing at home, thought I needed to start playing a little bit better or something,” Fowler said. “Being able to see him go out and have fun again on the golf course and just play golf, I would say a year ago we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to see that. To have him back playing and being able to play the last couple months with him at home and see his potential, I thought other than yesterday, it was a lot better than I think what a lot of people were expecting.”

 

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