NASSAU, Bahamas — In the flush of victory, the generation of American golfers inspired by Tiger Woods turned their bright eyes on their idol. At the after-party for the 2016 Ryder Cup, they needled Woods, who would return to competition two months later after an extended absence because of a back injury.
Tom Lehman, an assistant captain on that U.S. team, recalled a few of the verbal challenges he heard hurled at Woods, a fellow assistant captain, by the millennials in their midst.
Speaking at the recent Champions Tour season finale in Phoenix, Lehman ticked off the list: “I want a piece of you; I’m going to teach you how to play golf; I’m going to bury you; I’m going to take you down.”
Lehman, who won his only major championship the month before Woods turned pro in 1996, said he cautioned the players to be careful what they asked for, telling them, “The Tiger Woods that played against guys of my vintage, if you want to get your buns kicked, then play against that guy.”
A 7-year-old Justin Thomas attended the 2000 PGA Championship, one of Woods’ nine PGA Tour victories that season, and decided right then and there that he wanted to follow in Woods’ footsteps.
This year, Thomas, now 24, added his name to the PGA Championship trophy en route to winning the seasonlong FedEx Cup title. On Thursday at the Hero World Challenge here, he will be paired for the first time in a tournament with Woods, who is making his first competitive start in 10 months.
This is the third time in the past four years that Woods, 41, is marking his return to golf at this tournament, an unofficial PGA Tour event that benefits his charitable foundation. His comeback last year was short-lived. After three starts, back pain forced Woods again to the sidelines in February. Two months later, he had spinal fusion surgery, and as part of the healing process, he did not swing a club for six months.
Despite the fact that he has been hitting full shots only since October, Woods played a nine-hole practice round here on Monday with an ease and fluidity that pleasantly surprised his caddie, Joe LaCava, who said, “He’s hitting it more solid, and he looks stronger and healthier than last year.”
At his news conference Tuesday, Woods said, “Now that I’m feeling the way I’m feeling, it’s just hard to imagine that I was living the way I was living.” He added, “I’m loving life now.”
Asked how he will manage any future pain without relying on painkillers, he said, “That’s why you have doctors.”
The fusion surgery was Woods’ fourth back procedure, and it was more invasive than the microdiscectomy procedures that he had previously endured. Woods, who is famous for saying his expectation whenever he tees it up is to win, was more measured Tuesday.
“I’m winging this,” he said, “because I don’t know what my body can and can’t do yet.”
He added, “I’m just looking forward to getting through these four rounds and having a better understanding of where I’m at.”
Woods would not commit to a schedule after this weekend. “I just really don’t know yet,” he said. “I just really want to be able to compete this week, play all four days, and give myself a chance on the back nine on Sunday to win this thing.”
With 79 Tour titles, including 14 majors, Woods has nothing left to prove — except, perhaps, to the young pros that he attracted to the game.
To understand Woods’ motivation for returning to the competitive grind that has ground his finely tuned body into a two-wheeled jalopy and led to a misuse of pain medications, the response he gave the young Americans teasing him at the Ryder Cup is perhaps instructive.
Lehman recalled Woods saying, “You don’t want a piece of me.”
According to the PGA Tour, Thomas is one of five players in this week’s 18-man field who has never played in a tournament in which Woods emerged as the champion. The millennials who molded their games after Woods have never competed against him at his best. LaCava described Woods’ desire to compete against the young stars like Thomas, who have asserted themselves in his absence, as “unfinished business.”
LaCava said, “I think he wants to show, ‘This is how it used to be with me.'”
Woods alluded to as much on Tuesday. “In an ideal world, I would like them to feel what some of my past guys had to go against all those years,” he said, referring to his competitors then and now. “I’d like to have them feel that same play.”
And the youngsters whom Woods is motivated to impress are not just the pros. “He wants to show his kids that as well,” LaCava said.
Woods’ children, Sam Alexis, 10, and Charlie Axel, 8, are avid soccer players. Golf, he said, holds little interest for either. His son’s favorite athlete is Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. In July, Woods took the children to a preseason match in South Florida between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and they met Messi.
After they posed for a photograph with Messi and his Barcelona teammate Luis Suárez, Woods said to his children, “Isn’t it neat to meet a living legend?” He was taken aback by the reply from Sam, his daughter: “Yeah, we live with one.”
Woods said, “I never thought my kids have understood what I’ve been able to do in the game of golf because they always think I’m the YouTube golfer.”