NASSAU, Bahamas – The return of Tiger Woods was more about the big picture than any of his big numbers.
And that started with the sight of that red shirt on Sunday.
Woods grumbled about three more double bogeys in the final round of the Hero World Challenge. Considering how badly he has felt in the 15 months since he last played, he still was able to keep it in perspective.
“It feels good to be back out here playing again, competing and trying to beat the best players in the world,” Woods said. “I missed it. I love it.”
He even loved some of his golf at Albany.
Woods made 24 birdies, the most of anyone this week. He also had six double bogeys, three of them in the final round. The last one on the final hole, his third of the week on the 18th, gave him a 4-over 76. It was the highest score of the tournament, and he finished 15th in the 17-man field.
The other players were not about to measure him by his score – not yet, anyway.
“The whole world is watching a couple of rounds of golf,” said British Open champion Henrik Stenson, who finished second to Hideki Matsuyama. “It’s great to see him back and healthy and playing. I want to see him up in contention and try to beat him when it matters the most.
“Give him three or four tournaments, maybe six tournaments, maybe around the Masters,” he said. “It’s easy to overanalyze a very limited amount of golf.”
Rarely has a December event attracted this much curiosity. Woods, the dominant player of his generation, had gone 466 days since his previous tournament because of two back surgeries. The recovery at times made it difficult for him to walk and led him to wonder if he would ever play.
“Getting back to this point is beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime,” said Woods, who turns 41 at the end of the month. “The pain issues that I had, it was rough. Quite frankly, there some pretty dire times where I just couldn’t move.”
Woods showed no stress in his swing or in walking five straight rounds, starting with the pro-am. He had plenty of length, at times going after his driver with a little more pop to clear a bunker. He holed a few long putts . He missed a few short ones. At times, he looked like he had never been away for that long. And at times it did.
“It’s kind of new to me again, the feel of playing, the feel of adrenaline in my system, hitting shots,” Woods said.
One day after he briefly pulled within two shots of the lead, it was clear early on this day would be a struggle.
Woods was scrambling for pars instead of being in a position to attack pins. He twice made double bogey on a par 5, starting at No. 6 when he blasted out of the sandy area to the back side of a double green, forcing him to chip off the putting surface. Still, he rallied with three straight birdies to play the front nine in even par.
He was never going to win the tournament – Matsuyama was too far ahead – but it was a chance to post a decent number and take more positives into what figures to be a two-month off-season. Instead, Woods added two more double bogeys and shot 40 on the back nine.
He made his third double bogey of the week on the 18th hole without even going into the water. His tee shot landed in a thick palmetto bush, and he had to take a penalty drop to take it out. Just his luck, his drop in the sandy waste area settled right in front of the nub of another bush. He got that back to the fairway, went just over the green and took two putts from there for his 6.
“What he did here showed that he’s certainly up for the task and his game is there. He’s ready to go,” Jordan Spieth said. “Even with Tiger, every time we set expectations, he exceeds them.”
Woods at least starts his climb from No. 898 in the world, the product of not playing since Aug. 23, 2015.
He said he wants to play a full schedule in 2017 – that typically means no more than about 20 a year – and will look at his options over the next few weeks.
“I need to play more tournaments. Zero in 15 months is not a lot, so this is one,” Woods said. “I thought I made some good, positive things happen this week. Made a lot of birdies, also made a lot of mistakes. That’s something I know I can clean up.”
His caddie, Joe LaCava, offered the best perspective.
“I wasn’t going to compare him to the rest of the field. They’ve been playing all year and they’ve been playing great,” LaCava said. “Honestly, my goal was to get him through five rounds on his feet. That was big.”