By Steve Silverman
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It is not a major tournament, nor is it one of the PGA Tour's traditional events.
But Tiger Woods was playing golf in a competitive event Thursday and is planning to do so throughout the entire weekend at an event called the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
There is little belief that Tiger will once again be a dominant figure who picks up major victories and wins at other tour stops throughout the year. A top-10 finish on the money list seems way out of reach at this point and so does the ability to demoralize opponents and energize the crowd with the kind of consistency that he once demonstrated like the other greats of the game, names like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus.
Nearly everyone watching is hoping the current iteration of Tiger is the player who we saw win 14 major championships and overpower the sport prior to his 16-month layoff that saw him battle a myriad of physical problems.
The big question upon his return is how close will he be to the old Tiger? That was not answered Thursday, nor will it be answered in this week's tournament.
There has never been a golfer who has drawn eyes to the television screen like Tiger. He made a habit of standing over the ball and whistling shots down the fairway or stiffing an approach three feet from the flagstick. Golf aficionados knew they were seeing the real thing.
The sport is probably more competitive now than it was when Tiger was in his heyday. Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Patrick Reed are all formidable talents. When Tiger was at his peak, it seemed that Phil Mickelson was his No. 1 and perhaps only serious rival in the sport. Lefty's talent was undeniable, but the record shows he was not at his best when Tiger was racking up major victories.
Tiger will have to go a long way to compete on even terms with today's stars. Nobody knows if he will make it because he has to prove he can still handle the grind.
Not mentally, because he's better suited to that aspect of the sport than anyone who has ever played, and that includes Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Woods wants to compete and he wants to win, and it's a sure bet that he won't show any mercy if he gets into that position again.
The physical grind is the issue. Walking 18 holes every day is not easy for any 40-year-old golfer, especially one who has battled knee, back, neck, shoulder and other injury issues. It is taxing because there are awkward lies and nasty angles that can continue to take a toll on a body that has been injured so many times.
It will take time to see if Tiger can truly come all the way back, and we won't know the answer after one four-day tournament.
We need to see how he responds to playing multiple tournaments, such as four tournament in a six-week span.
That will be a daunting schedule, but Tiger has to show he can play with a high level of excellence, sustain it over a period of time, and remain healthy throughout the process.
When Tiger returned Thursday to competitive play, he looked very good at the start. By his own assessment, he was into the round by the second hole and he looked good, as his name was on the first page of the leaderboard thanks to a bunch of birdie putts.
But mistakes were made during the back nine, proving that it will take some time for him to find a game that was once so awe-inspiring.
Will he ever be that golfer again? The golfer who won three major titles and had nine tournament victories in 2000? That's almost a certain no, but can he win another major? Can he register multiple tournament victories in a given year?
If the answer to that question was not yes in Tiger's mind, he almost certainly would not be out there. He is a highly competitive man who wants to beat the best golfers in the world, but he needs his body to sustain itself in order to have a legitimate chance.
So, as the NFL season reaches its home stretch, and the college football playoff participants are being determined, keep one eye on Tiger. You will get a glimpse of a player who is trying to climb back up to the top of the mountain, and it promises to be one with many challenges.
If he can take two or three steps up without stumbling, that will be great for Tiger and even better for the sport of golf.
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