Tiger tries to shake off rust in the Bahamas

Love him or loathe him, or something in between, Tiger Woods moves the needle.

That is why golf fans, and some non-golf fans, will watch beginning Thursday when Woods makes his return to competition after an absence of nearly 16 months in the Hero World Challenge on the Albany course at New Providence, Bahamas.

“I am excited to make my return at the Hero World Challenge at Albany and play in this terrific tournament,” tournament host Woods said in a statement about the unofficial event that benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation, the Tavistock Foundation and the Albany Scholars Program.

“This is our 18th year, and every year we put together a top field that showcases the best golfers from the previous season. Albany is an outstanding setting, and I can’t thank Hero MotoCorp enough for their support of the tournament and my foundation.”

Woods, who has not played since he tied for 10th in the 2015 Wyndham Championship before undergoing two back procedures (making it three in just about a year), planned to return earlier.

Tiger was committed to the Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., at the start of the 2016-17 PGA Tour season in October and the Turkish Airlines Open last month, but he withdrew from both because he said although he felt good physically, his game simply was not ready.

There was speculation in the media that Woods’ brilliant career essentially was over because his body repeatedly broke down the past several years, and also that he lost the fire that made him one of the best golfers of all time.

Woods, who turns 41 on Dec. 30, admits he enjoys staying home in Florida and being involved with the activities of his daughter and son in addition to taking care of his business interests, including golf course design.

However, he claims he is not washed up and is backed up by those close to him, including TV commentator Notah Begay, Woods’ former Stanford teammate and a PGA Tour veteran, and agent Mark Steinberg.

“The determination is still there,” Steinberg told ESPN in a recent interview.

Woods has 79 PGA Tour victories, second only to Sam Snead’s 82, including 14 major titles, trailing only Jack Nicklaus’ 18.

There was a time when it seemed equaling or surpassing Nicklaus’ record was only a matter of time, but Woods has not captured a major title since he won the 2008 U.S. Open in an epic 19-hole playoff over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines. He played on a gimpy left knee that later required surgery.

Woods maintains he can still break the records of both Snead and Nicklaus, and Nicklaus said he agrees.

“It’s great to see you back and in good health,” Nicklaus, who won the Masters when he was 46, tweeted Woods when Tiger announced his return. “You’ve done so much for the game and it’s better with you playing. Good luck!”

While the past three years were almost a total loss, Woods won five PGA Tour events in 2013, the last year he was healthy enough to play a full season.

If he can remain healthy, it is in there somewhere.

However, there’s no question that many people are weary of the “When is Tiger going to return” story.

One is Pat Perez, who recently claimed the OHL Classic at Mayakoba for his second PGA Tour victory.

“(The story) is old, just in general,” Perez told golf.com. “Tiger changed the game, we do know that, but even if he came back, you’re not going to see the Tiger of old. It’s just not going to be there.

“The media, it’s so old to keep listening to, ‘When’s he coming back? When’s he coming back?’ The guy is 40 and he’s won 79 times. In my personal opinion, he doesn’t have the same drive he had when he was 24. I guarantee that. He’s got two kids now … they’re in school, they’re active, they’re doing sports and he wants to be there for them. That’s understandable.

“It just gets old because it takes away from the Rory (McIlroy), the Dustin Johnson, the Jason Day, all these great kids. … We’ve got a lot of great kids that are carrying the torch right now. I wish people would just focus on it as opposed to Tiger’s comeback.”

Perez is not in the elite 18-player Hero field, which includes defending champion Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose of England, Matt Kuchar, Russell Knox of Scotland and Zach Johnson.

Woods is a record five-time winner of the World Challenge, but don’t expect that this week. For his fans, simply a few flashes of that old Tiger magic would be enough.

That, and getting through the week without so much as a limp.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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