Under normal circumstances, it would be absurd to suggest that a player ranked in the low 800s would be hogging all the limelight in an ‘elite’ competition where the other 17 participants are the creme-de-la-creme of the sport.
On Tuesday afternoon at the Albany, the nearly 900th-ranked player in question was Tiger Woods, who is returning from a 16 months layoff to participate in the Hero World Challenge beginning on Thursday. The 14-time Major winner himself tackled the incongruity of the situation with some self-deprecatory sense of humour.
“I know you have to be in the top-50 in order to get into this event, but the committee allowed one person who is outside the top 50 to get into the event. I am in the committee,” said Woods with a smile. For the record, the Tigers Woods Foundation hosts this event.
There are questions – about form, fitness and mindset – that Woods will seek to answer with his club starting Thursday. In the interim, however, he spoke about his long road to recovery after the back surgery last year.
How nervous are you feeling before this first actual competitive event in a year and a half?
I am nervous. That’s good. As I have always said every tournament I have played I have always been nervous. That means I care. Sometimes I am at home, tinkering around with my buddies, just saying I don’t care what’s going on, but I care. I can channel that energy into focus, aggression. It’s a heightened feeling. I want to feel that. But it’s upto me to control. That’s something I haven’t done in 15-16 months. I’m going to try and get a feel for here. A lot of players talk about getting into the flow of the round. I need to find that flow quickly.
Have you been playing 18 holes at a stretch for some time?
Yeah Joey (Joe LaCava, his caddie) has come down and we have built it up – we tried 9, 15, 18 and then came down for another session, more focussed. We played for days, we grinded it out, we posted the numbers, posted the scores, had a few money bets on the side.
Did you win any bets ?
(Laughs) I was able to pay for the dinner!
Is it turning out to be what you wanted it to be so far, physically?
It’s getting there. I have had to put in a lot more to get ready to play. I am at that age – also with my past history – I have to do a lot more. I can’t just go to the first tee and bomb one. Gotta warm up. It is what it is. The good thing is now I am able to do it, I am able to warm up go out and play. Last year, that was not the case.
Do you think your game is not as vulnerable as you said it was some time back (in October 2016)?
It’s not the same as it used to be. There is no doubt. When I first came out here I was the second longest guy (in terms of driving distance off the tee) on the tour. John Daly was no.1. I averaged 296 yards, Daly was the first one to average over 300. Last way half way through the year there were 50 guys averaging over 300. The games changed a lot! (Laughs)
Am I one of the longer ones? Yeah, but I am nowhere near these guys are. I am hitting them longer than ever in my life, but it’s relative. It’s a different ball game now. Golf has changed a lot.
Would say that you are at your fittest right now, because you look so lean and mean?
I am leaner than I would like to be. I got sick, my kids got sick. My son got it, daugter got it, I got it and then I started feeling crappy then he got it again, then he got it again and then seh got it again. Before I could get it (agains) I came here here. I am down than i would like to be, but I am fitter than I have been in a very long time. I would like to be a little bit heavier now.
What kind of experience was vice-captaining Team USA at the Ryder Cup?
Very different. I have a whole new respect for what captains go through. It’s so much more difficult. As a player it’s hard, but in a way it’s easy too. All I have to do is get ready to play golf. Maybe two golf balls for alternate shots, and maybe get used to playing with two, maximum three, partners. That’s all I have to do.
Here, as an assistant captain, I am managing people, managing the players, caddies, physios, technicians, the companies they represent because they have had mechanical breakdowns with their equipment that they carry, trying to talk to their spouses, families, kids – I have not done this before! This is all different. It’s more complicated. You are up earlier, you are to bed later because it’s all organisational.
You talked of golf changing so much. Have you missed golf as much as golf has missed you?
What I missed most was the camaraderie of the fraternity. I mean these guys are my friends, I know we try to beat each others brains all the time but these guys are my friends. Once we are inside the ropes, it’s a different story –we are competitors, we are there to win. Outside, we go out there have dinner, a few drinks. We have been doing that. I am just happy to be out here with the guys. I missed that. I missed the needling, jabbing that we all do. It’s been good to see the guys out here again.I got a chance to experience at the Ryder Cup – but i want to be the player. Still got to be a part of it in a different way.