It is something called the Hero World Challenge and they only started with 18 players in the Bahamas, and the course they're playing, at the Albany Golf and Beach Resort, isn't Pebble Beach in the wind. But a week after Thanksgiving, seven years after everything changed forever for Tiger Woods on Thanksgiving night in 2009 at the bottom of his own driveway, he was the one playing some hero golf for a few hours, for the first time in a long time.
He is nearly 500 days from the time when he last played competitive golf. He has had more surgeries, on his back this time, adding to what seems like a record number of surgeries in a non-contact sport. He spent a lot of time away from his sport unable to pick up a club or swing one, and probably wondering sometimes if he'd ever come back. But he shot a bogey-free 65 on Friday, playing alone -- after so much of his career when he really did seem to be a single -- because Justin Rose had to withdraw because of a bad back.
Of course the tournament is a glorified exhibition, even if some of the best players on the planet are at Albany. Of course Woods was coming off a round that disappeared on him Thursday like water down a drain with a couple of late double bogeys. But he kept the ball in the fairway for most of his second round, he hit iron shots like a dream with the latest version of his swing, he made some putts, most notably a long par putt on No. 16 after the worst drive he hit all day, one that ended in a very bad place in a very long waste bunker.
But he gouged out a second shot and then landed his third shot, a short iron, over a long bunker in front of the green, at least giving himself a chance to make par. Which he did, throwing a fist and a leg in the air when the ball dropped. A few holes before he had nearly made a hole-in-one on the 12th. If you didn't know what year it was, you wouldn't have known what year it was.
"Perfect full six (on 12)," he said on the Golf Channel when he was finished. "I couldn't hit it any better than I did."
When he was asked about that long par putt on 16, he said, "Big. Big. Not to drop a shot and not lose momentum." It was at a place in his round, three holes to go, when he had started to throw away all the momentum of a 33 front side on Thursday.
"I moved myself up the board," he said.
For a few hours, Woods breezing along without a playing companion, it was such big fun to watch, as if he were the one who'd forgotten what year it was, forgotten everything that had gone wrong in his career and his life since that trip down the driveway that Thanksgiving night, the night he turned his own driveway into a bobsled run. After that came the conga line of women, and divorce, and the surgeries, and one of the most stunning reversals of fortune for any big star in the history of American sports. He was sitting on 14 majors that night. He is still sitting on 14 majors, the last of which was the U.S. Open in 2008, at Torrey Pines, finally beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff before he went away to recover from a bad knee, and a broken bone in his leg.
Now he has been away for as long as he has, and will turn 41 at the end of this month. If he is ever going to come back and be a big player again, whether he can win more majors or not, it all starts now. In about a hundred different ways, he is trying to move back up the board.
"I keep thinking that if he can even get back to 85 percent, he could still beat their asses," Curtis Strange, the last man to win consecutive U.S. Opens, now working as a golf analyst for Fox, said Friday afternoon.
Curtis is an old friend, and has always been one of the very best and smartest and most honest guys talking about golf on television, first for ABC and ESPN and now back on the course for Fox, reunited on those telecasts with Paul Azinger. And when Tiger started to make that move up the board, I texted him. He called me about two minutes later.
He wasn't watching, he was practicing, getting ready for the annual Father-Son Challenge in Orlando next week. But he had been following the round on his phone. He was laughing almost as soon as I picked up my own phone.
"You know what I did last night?" Curtis said. "I watched his round when they replayed it."
He said, "Think about that. I'm watching night golf in December. You're texting me. And you know why? Because Tiger is trending today."
Tiger was trending, making birdies. Scrambling when he had to. Moving up the board. Doesn't mean his body won't betray him again. You're always going to be holding your breath when he slashes at a ball with rocks and palmetto right in front of him the way he did on No. 16 in the Bahamas on Friday. Doesn't mean they need to make sure at Augusta National that they still have the right green jacket measurements for him. Doesn't mean he's turned into a nice guy. Or won't finish closer to last place than first this weekend.
And by the way? It doesn't mean that golf hasn't been highly entertaining while he's been away, not with the way Jordan Spieth and Jason Day and Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy have played in his absence. The sport isn't one guy now, and won't ever be one guy ever again, even if it was when Tiger was playing a single.
But this is what Curtis Strange said Friday, and he was right, one hundred percent:
"How great would it be if he could come back and take on these kids?"
He talked then about Tiger's new swing, another work in progress, and about how he wants to see a lot more of his chipping and putting, just because nobody's chipping and putting gets better after the age of 40. And Curtis Strange was another who pointed out Friday that "it's not like (Woods) is playing the hardest course in the world."
"What he needs is time," Curtis said. "He needs to stay healthy, and he needs to have six months, eight months, 10 months, and then we'll see where he is."
It was just one round, at a resort course, with a 18-man field that became 17 when Rose withdrew. Still: Woods started out one spot from the bottom of the field Friday morning. Bottom of the field seven years after the bottom of the driveway.
But in the Bahamas on Friday, he really did seem to forget what year it was. If you had the chance to watch, he made you watch. Michael Jordan was the biggest star we had once. After he retired, it was Tiger, then LeBron. For a few hours, Tiger Woods reminded you of who he used to be, and what he used to do.
Curtis Strange was right. Tiger was trending Friday. Because of his golf game. Good thing. Great round. One he finished this time. Maybe it's a start.