Date: December 05, 2016
Author: Mark Hayes with ESPN

Matsuyama salutes, but Tiger big winner

In any other week, Hideki Matsuyama’s fourth win in five starts would be massive news.

But this week in the Bahamas was always going to be about Tiger Woods.

Woods completed a 72-hole tournament for the first time in 15 months today – an achievement that was always going to mean more than his swing, his score and his standing in the Hero World Challenge.

He changed the narrative from negative to positive; from concerns about whether he was risking embarrassment to how long it might be before he will win again.

The fact people are talking about the former world No.1 adding more trophies is a testament to how good Woods looked this week and a pleasant surprise after the doom and gloom of the past year.

“It's really awesome to see,” Jordan Spieth said.

“I'm pumped to see what he's doing this week. It's certainly there. If he wasn't rusty, he could (have been) winning this tournament.''

Woods ended up well behind winner Matsuyama, shooting a final-round 76 that included three double-bogeys. That was the highest score of any player this week. But when you consider there were many who wondered if Woods would break 80, his time in the Bahamas was a rousing success.

Right now, Japanese ace Matsuyama can't seem to lose.

His third straight victory was his fourth in his past five worldwide starts.

He had a few nervous moments on the back nine when his seven-shot lead at the start of the final round was reduced to two shots over British Open champion Henrik Stenson with two to play.

But he closed with two pars for a one-over-par 73 and a two-shot victory as he continues his imperious run that started with a three-shot victory in the Japan Open.

He was runner-up in Malaysia, then became the first Asian to win a World Golf Championships title with a seven-shot victory in the HSBC Champions. Two weeks later, he won the Taiheiyo Masters on the Japan Golf Tour by seven. And except for a few mistakes on the back nine today, this was another runaway.

Matsuyama, who finished at 18-under 270, remained at No.6 in the world. He ended his streak of 17 consecutive rounds in the 60s, though all that mattered was the trophy presentation with Woods, his childhood idol and again the talk of world golf after his resumption from multiple back surgeries.

“Getting back to this point is beyond anything that I've ever experienced,” Woods said.

“The pain issues that I had, it was rough – to battle back, to battle through it. Frankly, there were some pretty dire times where I just couldn't move.”

Among the more impressive aspects of his comeback was the intensity Woods brought to his first tournament since August 2015. There is an understandable sense that Woods has to take things slowly, carefully. That his swing has undergone subtle changes to protect his surgically repaired back. That there would be growing pains, most notably with power and distance.

But it quickly became apparent that he is lacking no power or distance; that his ability to shape shots is there.

“I really like how much longer his backswing is – especially with the driver,” said Sean Foley, Woods' former coach.

“I like that his lower body and pelvis are moving more. The movement is not restricted; it is much more free. He looks great.”

Another former coach, Haney Haney, said: “The swing is smooth; there are no apparent issues.”

Haney correctly pointed out the relative ease of the Albany course, and a few disclaimers are in order. Albany has five par-5s and did not play particularly long; the field comprised just 18 players, reduced to 17 after Justin Rose withdrew with his own back injury; not every player was fully engaged (Dustin Johnson had not picked up a club since playing in China last month.) And this being an unofficial event meant it would be fun and relaxing with a nice payday as part of it.

But Woods had more birdies (24) than any player other than Matsuyama.

“Everything looks like he can win on a great week, but he isn't winning with his B game,” Haney said.

“For that matter, no one today can do that like Tiger used to do. He will win again, no doubt, unless the short game rears its head again.”

There were some issues, to be sure. Woods made three bogeys and two double-bogeys on par-5s.

Woods is unlikely to see as much sand as he did this week since the Albany course is basically lined with waste areas instead of rough. But he had his struggles with long shots out of sand and if he misses fairways in most tournaments, he'll have difficult lies in the rough instead.

“You know, only Tiger could take a year and a half off and put up the numbers that he's putting up this week,” Matsuyama said.

Tiger Woods finished his first tournament in just over 15 months, and though he wound up 15th, he said it was “good to be back”.

This was clearly an emotional, draining week for Woods. In addition to the duties he has as host of the tournament, playing for the first time with all the scrutiny he knew was coming led to an anxiety nobody else in the field faced. Woods admitted that getting past Thursday was a relief, and it allowed him to settle into playing golf.

Sunday was more a reminder that this was never going to be easy, that golf is a difficult game even when at your best, and that Woods still has plenty of obstacles to conquer in his comeback.

But instead of the dark clouds that hung over him for so much of the past year, there is a sunnier outlook heading into 2017. Woods is not likely to play again for at least six weeks, with his next tournament undecided. It could be Abu Dhabi on the European Tour or the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines the following week.

Wherever it is, whenever it is, Woods now has a solid foundation from which to build with plenty of positives to draw on but much work still to do.