He's back ... now what? The next step for Tiger Woods

  • Woods returns to the Hero Challenge this week as more than a curiosity and more than just the host. He is one of the key competitors in the 18-player field, a threat to win a tournament for which he had a spot only a year ago because he hosts it on behalf of his foundation.

    From 1,199th in the world then to 13th now.

    From doubts about his physical well-being a year ago to a player who competed in 18 tournaments in 2018 and won the Tour Championship to post his 80th career victory.

    From those dark days of 2015, when Woods said, "Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?'' to now, even with his 43rd birthday looming, when he likely will be the betting favorite to win the 2019 Masters and maybe be a threat to challenge for No. 1 in the world again.

    Expectations are always dicey with Woods, because for so long in the prime of his career he set the bar so high and continually met it or exceeded it.

    Even during his comeback this past summer, when prospects should have still been at a minimum -- given four back surgeries, a spinal fusion a year earlier and so little competition over the previous three years -- Woods often was greeted with expectations of days gone by:

    Why is he missing so many fairways? What is wrong with his putter? How come he is struggling with his short wedges?

    Given that backdrop -- and all he achieved after a wildly successful 2018 -- it is fair to wonder what 2019 will bring.

    Is a victory, along with six other top-10 finishes -- including twice contending in majors -- likely again? Could that be the high end? Or can he set his sights on adding a 15th major title, a first in 11 years?

    "My expectations are that Tiger is going to play really, really well,'' said Hank Haney, who was Woods' coach from 2004 to 2010. "I said before this year that he was going to win a tournament. And I think he'll win another major. Now, I think he's going to do better than that.''

    The reason he is even more sold now? Woods' short game.

    "That was the big thing that made me a little hesitant,'' Haney said. "I didn't feel anything else would be a problem for him. As soon as I saw the swing he was going with and wasn't much different than anything he'd been successful with in the past, I said he's going to win.

    "But his short game was better than I thought. You have to have that one day or one round where you don't hit it good where you still manufacture a score. Without a short game, you can't do that. It's the difference between winning and losing a tournament. I think the short game changed my view on how I thought he could do.''

    It is no stretch to suggest that Woods will gear his schedule around being best prepared for the major championships.

    Along the way, he is likely to stick to his traditional schedule -- with the exception of last week's Match against Phil Mickelson -- where familiarity has helped him in the past while giving him the right amount of competition leading into the biggest events.

    Having won a tournament in 2018 while contending in several others will undoubtedly mean Woods will ratchet up his own expectations, with an eye on doing what is necessary to be positioned properly for the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs and making the U.S. Presidents Cup team -- he is the U.S. captain -- as a player.

    "I would look for him to do better,'' said Sean Foley, another former Woods instructor who worked with him from 2010 to 2014. "The one major difference is just the amount of players at the elite level. There have always been great players, but right now as Tiger manages his business, his family, his career, his health ... these kids are playing 30 tournaments and playing all day. And there are more of them. They don't have nearly the fear factor. There is just more competition at the top, and you can see that by the way No. 1 keeps changing.

    "But how many 43-year-olds are going to be at a peak level like he is? I would look for him to have a solid year. If he stays healthy, he'll have more opportunities. He's got more experience to draw on than anyone alive. And it looked like he did a super job of getting those irons dialed in as the year went on. The major thing it is going to come down to is how well he drives the ball.''

    Woods did find success toward the end of the season when he sacrificed distance for accuracy.

    He experimented throughout the year with a few different shafts and altered the loft on his driver heading into the FedEx Cup playoffs. TaylorMade, his equipment company, is expected to release new products in 2019, so it is possible the experimentation period will continue.

    And that is what makes the early part of 2019 an intriguing dilemma for Woods.

    He has not decided whether he will play the Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January. The fact that he has yet to rule out an event he has not competed in since 2005 is intriguing simply because we all got used to the idea of him beginning his year at Torrey Pines, the fourth week of January.

    But the Tournament of Champions -- for 2018 winners only -- gives Woods an early opportunity to earn easy FedEx points (there is no cut, fewer than 40 players), world ranking points and Presidents Cup points on a wide-open golf course. That means plenty of chances to work on new driver specifications without much penalty.

    And yet, it also means ramping up his tournament preparation that much earlier. And it's not like Woods has nothing going on.

    There was the buildup to last week's "The Match." Woods has his own event this week in the Bahamas. Next week, Woods is headed for Melbourne, Australia, to help promote the Presidents Cup.

    But if he wants to play on his own U.S. Presidents Cup team, Woods needs to take advantage of opportunities to earn points, such as in Hawaii or at, say, the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he was not eligible in 2018.

    "I saw that [Woods' good year] coming,'' said Hall of Famer Ernie Els, who will be the captain for the opposing International team at the Presidents Cup. "When he got healthy with his back, he started getting the club in good positions. As sportsmen, we know: When you struggle with an injury, you get into bad habits, which he did.

    "Now, with a healthy back, healthy body, he can swing the way he used to, and that's what he started doing. With his kind of talent, he's going to start winning. He already contended in a major, the PGA [as well as The Open], and I think he's going to do the same at the Masters.''

    Woods acknowledged last week that he took off a good month following the Ryder Cup and had spent the three weeks prior to his match with Mickelson slowly working on his game.

    Read that to mean that he is not where he wants to be at this point, choosing to use his time off wisely by resting and rehabbing. What he learned about his ability to play tournaments, recuperate and practice in 2018 will go a long way toward determining how he performs in 2019.

    So expect Woods to play as few as five tournaments before the Masters in 2019 and as many as seven with a total for the season of 16, depending on if he easily qualifies for the FedEx Cup playoff run or needs more tournaments to assure himself of making it back to the Tour Championship.

    It's remarkable, really, to be talking in those terms, especially at the place where not that long ago we wondered if Woods' career was over.

    Perhaps even more remarkable is that Woods has a chance to return to the top 10 in the world this week.