DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
WINDERMERE, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods has more comebacks than top 10s this year in golf.
He makes his second return to competition Thursday in his Hero World Challenge at Isleworth, an unofficial event of 18 players from the top 50 in the world ranking. The tournament has been seen as the end of a long year for some players, and a launching pad into the new year for others.
Woods is somewhere in the middle.
He hasn’t played since Aug. 9 when he missed the cut at the PGA Championship, choosing to sit out nearly four months to get his body stronger and make sure he is fully recovered this time from back surgery earlier in the year.
Woods already passed one test on Wednesday in the pro-am, except it had nothing to do with his swing or his back.
It was about his legs. He walked 18 holes of golf.
“I haven’t done that since the PGA,” he said.
Woods recorded a few birdies, a bogey and none of it was meaningful. The best measure is Thursday when the tournament gets underway.
Here are five things to look for at Isleworth, the course where Woods spent his first 16 years on tour.
THE COMEBACK, PART V: This is the fifth time Woods has come back from an injury-induced layoff, whether it was one month or four months.
He tied for fourth at the Masters in 2010 when he returned from the minor physical (car accident) and major emotional (infidelity) wounds. He tied for 37th at the Bridgestone Invitational in 2011 after sitting out nearly three months to let his legs fully heal. He missed one month and two tournaments after an injury to his elbow in 2013 and tied for sixth in the British Open. And he missed the cut at Congressional this year after returning from back surgery.
THE ODDS: The injury-filled season that allowed Woods to play in only eight tournaments led to his first year that he failed to register a top 10 on the PGA Tour. He gets one last chance at Isleworth to pick up a top 10 in the calendar year.
The odds are in his favor because only 18 players are at Isleworth.
Woods has won his World Challenge five times, all of them at Sherwood Country Club. But he knows Isleworth even better, having once lived across from the driving range. Woods holds the course record set nearly two decades ago when he shot 59.
THE BACK: Woods didn’t how any sign of pain when he returned from back surgery in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional in June. He didn’t really have any more issues with his back until the final round at Firestone, when he hopped into a bunker from a steep lip and jarred his lower back. That’s when he realized his muscle structure wasn’t strong enough, and it led to his decision of taking time off.
One positive sign Wednesday was when he hopped off a 4-foot wall behind the 10th tee, then trotted to the clubhouse to use the bathroom. There were no issues.
THE SWING: With his health seemingly improved, most of the focus will be on his swing. Woods fired swing coach Sean Foley during his time off and began working with Chris Como, a specialist in biomechanics and listening. Woods had an idea of what he should do with his swing, and he was elated to learn that Como had the same idea.
Woods describes it as “new, but old,” having relied on tapes of his swing dating to when he was an amateur. It looked vaguely familiar to Steve Stricker.
“Looks a lot similar to early 2000s to me, from the side when I was watching,” Stricker said. “Looked like the swing was going through a lot freer, like it was on a better path.”
THE CAMEO: Now you see him, now you don’t.
Golf Channel has plans for wall-to-wall coverage of Woods playing in the World Challenge. This is the largest media gathering at a PGA Tour-sanctioned tournament since the Tour Championship. When he walked off the 18th green after his pro-am, Woods was surrounded by more than dozen reporters.
Woods playing golf again is a big deal. Next up is another break.
This is the last golf tournament of the year. Woods won’t be in Hawaii to start 2015. He has never played the Humana Challenge. He hasn’t been to the Phoenix Open since 2001. He is not planning to go to the Middle East. If he sticks to his regular schedule of starting at Torrey Pines, this will be his last competition for two months.
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