Cautious optimism for Tiger in return at the Hero World Challenge

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_ValueChristian Petersen/Getty Images

NASSAU, Bahamas -- If we had to choose the precise moment Thursday when Tiger Woods really started resembling the Tiger of the good ol' days, it wouldn't be the opening drive that found the left rough between two bunkers. It wouldn't be the brilliant chip on the par-5 third that led to his first birdie in 466 days. It wouldn't even be his third birdie of the day, on the seventh hole, the product of a laser-beam approach shot and no-doubt-about-it putt that barely elicited a grin.

No, the moment he truly started evoking memories of the guy who's won 14 major championships occurred on the next tee, the par-3 eighth, when his impact through the ball was immediately followed by one of his first audible exhortations during the round.

"One yard!" he shouted, a command he often gave when he was hitting his best shots.

The ball listened, nestling just a few feet from the hole en route to a fourth birdie and a share of the lead.

That's when some combination of Woods' rustiness and the omnipotent golf gods forced him to collectively pump the brakes during his return engagement to competitive golf.

You could insist he appeared very much like a different Tiger of old when he failed to get a delicate chip onto the surface from just left of the ninth green. And when he played army golf on the 11th, after a pulled tee shot left and a pushed second shot right led to a swipe at the turf with his club and an unplayable lie penalty stroke. And again when he hooked his drive on the final hole into the adjacent water hazard, then slammed the driver into the ground before carding his second double-bogey in three holes.

By the time he'd finished, Woods had turned a 4 under start and share of the lead into a 1-over 73 that left him in 17th place in the 18-man Hero World Challenge field.

"I just made some really silly mistakes, mistakes I don't normally make," Woods said, before reminding himself as much as anyone else, "but I haven't played in a while."

This was a textbook round for someone who hadn't played in a while: Make a few nervy pars just to ease away the tension; ride the wave of adrenaline up the leaderboard; get overtaken by fatigue down the stretch.

If we needed further proof, though, of Woods' return to familiarity, it came after the round, when he wouldn't acquiesce to that last observation.

He was asked a reasonable question about whether he'd run out of gas before making those two doubles.

"I wouldn't say that," he offered. "I just made some mistakes."

He was asked a similar question about whether he incurred issues with stamina and again wouldn't relent.

"No, no, not that," he argued. "I just made a couple of mistakes out there."

This was classic Tiger, who for years has made a practice of debunking even the simplest opinions of his game. Consider it evidence that the new normal for him might still be pretty normal.

Score and result notwithstanding, that should be a main takeaway from Thursday's round. He wasn't doubled over with back pain, nor was he chunking uncomplicated chip shots. The truth is, if you didn't know he was a 14-time major champion and didn't know he was returning from a lengthy layoff, he appeared very much like any other professional golfer playing any round of golf.

"How quickly I fell into the competitive mode and I felt the feel of the round," Woods said when asked what he was most pleased about. "By the time I hit my tee shot on the second hole, I had already gotten into the flow of the round. That's something that for me, when I've taken layoffs and taken breaks, it's how quickly can I find the feel of the round. It's good to be able to play [for the first time] in, what, 15, 16 months and get it on the second hole."

The other takeaway is that this round should provide cautious optimism moving forward. Critical analysis aside, his return to competitive golf should be viewed through a positive prism.

Woods often talks about the process. Well, he's only going to get stronger and more comfortable moving forward. This should be seen as a terrific first step in that process.

Earlier this week, as a few reporters chatted up Woods on the range here at Albany Golf Club, he struck shot after shot, then finally turned to them and quipped, "I'm not dead yet."

On Thursday, the rest of the world got to see that, too.