Rickie Fowler Lifts Hero World Challenge Trophy In Scintillating Fashion Even As 14-Time Major Winner Tiger Woods Makes A Statement On Return To Golf After 301 Days
Quadruple back surgery. No tournament play for 301 days. Yet, when Tiger Woods shot that first drive at The Championship Course in Albany, the entire world watched in anticipation. And thankfully, a swelling crowd in the Bahamas went berserk after tournament host Tiger Woods hit one booming drive after another, overpowering playing partner Justin Thomas by 25 yards on a couple of occasions.
For yours truly, who was witnessing Tiger play from close quarters for the first time since his brief visit to the Delhi Golf Club in February 2014, the 14-time Major champion didn’t take the trophy home, still he won.
Out of action since February last year, Tiger played all the four rounds of the US$ 3.5 million Hero World Challenge without any physical setbacks or pain, hitting longer than expected from the tee — prompting fellow Americans Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler to rave about his comeback. Tiger, who turned 42 on December 30, posted 3 out of the 4 rounds in the 60s, which might have seemed impossible even in his dreams.
His walk was still majestic, his swing photogenic and his recovery reminiscent of the Tiger of old. The only thing he lacked was his birdie conversion ratio, despite coming close on numerous occasions. But he made up for it by saving par from improbable situations. Sample this: Tiger had landed in the dunes on the par-5 15th in the opening round prompting him to fire a safety drive. The ball was still untraceable by the marshalls with the limestone mud and thick bushes acting as a camouflage.
After getting a free drop from the referee, he first hit it to the fairway and then made a great par save from 15 feet to the excitement of the vociferous crowd.
The World No. 1 for 683 weeks posted 69 in the first round and 68 in the second to set himself perfectly for a top-5 finish before winds changed the colour of his scores to red in the penultimate round at the Ernie Els layout. The Florida native then put up a dogged fightback to hole six birdies and an eagle in the final round with ample support from caddie Joe LaCava to register a tied ninth finish with an overall tally of 8-under 280, a shot ahead of reigning FedEx Cup Champion Justin Thomas and eight strokes ahead of current World No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
The result pushed him from 1199th in the World Rankings to inside 700.
Woods may not be at the level we all expect him to be but he sure is on the right path. He gave enough signs to his supporters and critics that he has it in him and by his own admission he sees a bright future for himself.
“Well, I knew I was going to be able to play all four rounds, that wasn’t going to be an issue. I played a lot at home. Came down here, I played, so that wasn’t going to be the issue. The issue was how was my scoring going to be, how was my feel, how am I going to get used to the adrenaline in my system for the first time in a while. You know, that took a little bit of time. I was still good with my irons, I drove it pretty good all week, made some good putts. But overall I’m very pleased. I showed some good signs, I hit some really good shots out there and a bright future,” he told reporters later.
So, what does 2018 look like for Tiger?
“That’s a great question. I think that we’re going to sit down here, we’re going to figure out what’s the best way for me to build my schedule for the Major championships. Play, how much, what my training cycles are going to be, and play enough but don’t play too much. I don’t know what golf courses I’ll be playing and what’s the best way to go about it. We’ll sit down with the whole team and we’ll figure it out.”
Rickie Is The New Hero
Fires 7 birdies on the trot for record 61 in round 4
While the entire world was busy arguing whether Tiger could surpass Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour titles (Tiger has 79 of them) or clinch another Major, young Rickie Fowler carded a tournament record 11-under 61 in the final round to snatch the Hero World Challenge title from overnight leader Charley Hoffman.
Beginning the final round 7 strokes behind Hoffman, Fowler finished with a 72-hole winning total of 18-under 270 in the 18-man field. It was the second victory of the year for the 28-year-old, and the second time he has ended a year with multiple victories worldwide.
In the post-event press conference, the World No. 7 expressed his satisfaction over his performance before mentioning about his idol Tiger, neighbour in Jupiter (Florida).
“It was pretty special. Obviously it’s not a full field event, but the 18 guys that are here I feel like we’ve all earned our way here. In a way this tournament’s always I feel like been looked at as a celebration of, like I said, earning your way here. No one gets here by mistake. Even Tiger just started at 1,200. He’s inside 1,000 now. He’s trending, he’s going the right way. Especially to have Tiger here this week, 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, I mean it was a lot better than I think what a lot of people were could expect or even expecting,” said Fowler with his girlfriend Allison Stokke all ears in the front row.
“It was a great week here. Obviously I knew I needed to get off to a hot start today to give myself a chance, and Charley’s been playing some solid golf and I wasn’t expecting him to come back to me, I knew I was going to have to go out and get him. Like I said, get off to a decent start and at least show my face a little bit. I wasn’t expecting seven out of the gate, but I’ll take it,” he added.
Asked if he anytime felt he had a chance, Fowler said: “Oh, of course, who wasn’t? You shoot 28 on the front, it’s in there. So I knew that there was a few holes on the back, there were definitely some birdie holes, a couple par 5s. Knew I was going to have to get a couple good ones to make that happen. But as I said, I made a lot of good swings out there, made good swings coming down the stretch. 17, I thought it was a perfect shot, the wind just drifted it a little bit too much, and hit a great approach shot into 18 and that one stayed straight. You can’t be perfect.”
Race to Dubai winner from England Tommy Fleetwood, who tied the knot in the Bahamas, closed with a 67 and tied for third with Jordan Spieth (69).
Superfan Nadal Follows His ‘Idol’
Rafa delighted at Tiger’s impressive return
Hordes of fans, armed with prayers, scorched the Albany course to watch their favourite golfer Tiger Woods make a comeback after 9 months. But the most notable among them was 16-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, who was holidaying in the Bahamas with his family. Nadal, the World No. 1, not only walked the final 18 holes of the Hero World Challenge with Tiger but also cheered him on alongside the crowd.
Not to mention the superfan was happy with Tiger’s performance and especially the traditional fist pump after he holed an eagle on the seventh hole in the final round.
“I’ve seen him play before, but I didn’t expect to watch him play this well at the beginning,” Nadal was quoted as saying by The New York Post. “I think this is a very important moment now for golf and himself and for all the people who love the sport in general. He’s the most charismatic star golf has had in the past 50 years or so. For everyone to see him back is something great for the sport.”
“Tiger is unbelievable. I just love to see him play whether it is here or on TV. The first thing is you need to be healthy to practice again, as well as be mentally strong to do the things you think you need to do to be back to your top. If Tiger’s healthy, then I believe that he has everything to be where he deserves to be,” the 2.5 handicapper added.
(Disclosure: The writer’s trip was sponsored by Hero MotoCorp)
(Read more in the January issue of Golf Digest India. Download here.)