Tiger ‘Loving life now’; Tour buds marvel at improved game

Two days before playing his first competitive round of golf in more than nine months, Tiger Woods said on Tuesday that he is “loving life” now that he is not experiencing constant back pain, while fellow PGA Tour players continued to marvel at his improved length on the course.

Woods will tee off at 12:05 p.m. on Thursday, paired with Justin Thomas in the first round of the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. An 18-player event reserved for players ranked in the top 50 in the world, Woods received an exemption into the field as the tournament host.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods hits out of a green-side bunker during a practice round of the Hero World Challenge. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

And for the second consecutive year, it marks Woods’ return following an extended absence from the Tour due to injury. He insisted during a press conference on Tuesday that this comeback feels different because he truly feels pain-free following fusion surgery in April. He attempted a comeback after a third back procedure in 2016, returning at the Hero World Challenge and setting up an aggressive early 2017 schedule before withdrawing from the Dubai Desert Classic in February.

Woods has not played a competitive round of golf since, but said April’s surgery has provided him with a new quality of life off the course and the ability to be competitive again on it. He has been playing practice rounds in Florida with friends and this week at the Albany course leading up to the tournament.

“I hadn’t been able to play fun golf like that with my friends in such a long time,” Woods said. “I’d play nine holes here, 18 holes here, and then I’d have to take three days off because my back was killing me.

“Forget being competitive. But this surgery was … it was about quality of life, because I didn’t really haven’t had much. I’ve been in bed for about two years, and haven’t been able to do much.”

Woods said he was having a difficult time sitting at dinner, much less sleeping. He started using prescription medication to deal with the constant pain, and was arrested for driving under the influence in Florida in May. That led to him seeking professional help to “manage” the medications he had been using to help him sleep.

Woods, 41, completed a rehabilitation program and was sentenced last month to 12 months probation and a mandatory drug rehabilitation program. While he is excited to return to competitive golf, Woods said he is most happy with the ability to sleep again … and play sports with his children.

“Now that I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling, it’s just hard to imagine I was living the way that I was living,” he said Tuesday. “With my foot not working, my leg not working, then the hours not being able to sleep at all because of the pain.

“I was trying to go away from the pain. And I was trying to sleep, which I hadn’t done in a very long time because of the things I was dealing with. As my back improved, I’ve been able to start sleeping again. I don’t have these issues any more … I’m loving life now.”

Now the golf world waits to see what the 14-time major winner can do between the ropes. He has not won a golf tournament since 2013, and rejoins a Tour dominated by talented players in their 20s.

Woods played a practice round on Monday with Patrick Reed, who marveled at how far Woods was driving the ball past him.

“He had pep in his step. He was in high spirits. I was shocked how fluid his swing was and how far the ball was going. He had some speed behind it. He’s always been a little longer than me, but some of those drives today, he got it out there. He was hitting the stinger here and there, hitting bunker shots, hitting balls out of the rough … there just wasn’t any hesitation in his body to hit those shots. That’s key. If he stays healthy, we’ll see Tiger again.”

That has been a consistent theme from those who have seen Woods on the course over the past several weeks. The first true test will come on Thursday, but Woods is already having fun just being back on the course again.

“I missed playing golf for fun,” he said Tuesday. “Going out there and hit and giggle, and play for some denominations and have a good time. I hadn’t done that in two years.”

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