ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods walked onto the tee for a routine pro-am round Friday and felt an unexpected dose of nerves, realizing how long it had been since he had an audience on the golf course.
The small grandstand behind the tee was packed, everyone on their feet. Spectators filled every inch behind the ropes for 95 yards down the left side of the hole. This was another must-see moment involving Woods under far different circumstances.
Ten months after Woods shattered his right leg in a car crash in suburban Los Angeles, he was back to golf at the PNC Championship with 12-year-old son Charlie.
Back to being Tiger Woods? Far from it.
Even so, the Feb. 23 images of his crumpled SUV and seeing him Friday in golf attire taking full swings and holing putts was no less remarkable.
“I haven't hit too many tee shots and then ... all of a sudden there's people off the tee box,” Woods said. “It was an awesome day. It was just awesome to be back out there playing and being out there with my son. And we just had an absolute blast.”
They are the featured attraction at the 36-hole event that pairs parents and children, just like last year, with one big difference. A year ago, there was enormous appeal getting a look at the young son of the 15-time major champion.
Now it's all about the father.
Nearly two dozen media, mostly cameras, waited along the circle drive and raised their equipment each time a car approached at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Orlando. Woods fooled them again, walking in from the parking lot, just like normal.
He stopped hitting full shots over the last six holes, and he didn't have much power on the tee shots he hit. That was to be expected. As he said two weeks ago in the Bahamas, competing in a real event at the highest level is a long way off.
“It's just not as powerful," Woods said. “I can't generate the speed I used to and the body is not what it used to be. Obviously, it's been a little banged up this year. And slowly but surely, I'll get to where the speed will start coming back and I can start hitting the shots that I see that just aren't quite coming off.”
There were some positive signs. After his opening drive, he stooped over with all his weight on his damaged right leg to remove the tee. At times he walked with a purposeful stride. And at times, his gait was slower and more measured.
Woods walked from the back tee to the forward tee his son is using, and then he got into a cart that he can use for a 20-team event that includes 86-year-old Gary Player and the 11-year-old son of former British Open champion Henrik Stenson.
The Masters is four months away. Augusta National is the toughest walk Woods faces in even healthy years.
“I couldn't walk this golf course even right now, and it's flat,” Woods said. "I don't have the endurance. My leg is not quite right yet, and it's going to take time. I'm a long way from playing tournament golf. This is hit it, hop in a cart and move about my business.
“Being able to play tournament golf and being able to recover, practice and train and hit balls after a round and do all the things that I need to be at a high level, I'm a long way from that.”
He did go to the range when his pro-am round was over, first as a spectator. Charlie dropped a bag of balls and began hitting wedges. Woods slowly took a seat in the grass, leaning against the back of a cart, and raised his right knee.
Before long, he slowly got up and hit wedges side-by-side with Charlie, and then they moved over to a bunker for some practice. It was light and easy, which is about all Woods is able to handle at the moment.
Woods plays in the final group on Saturday along with Justin Thomas and his father, the defending champions.
Woods and his son finished seventh last year, and then Woods had a fifth surgery on his lower back that delayed the start of his season. Then, his season and nearly his career ended when his SUV that police estimated was going at least 84 mph crashed over a median on a winding road and tumbled down a hill.
And now he's playing golf again in a family event with major champions, riding in a cart. But it's golf. Asked if he was amazed to be back so soon, Woods replied, “Yes and no.”
It seemed unlikely when he was immobilized for three months in a makeshift hospital bed in his house when he his primary mission was to walk on his own.
Getting to his point wasn't by happenstance.
“We worked every day,” he said. “Even days where I didn't feel very good, we still worked on something. There was never a day off other than those three months in bed.”
Where it leads remains unknown. For now, he was happy to be playing with his son, his first appearance this year on network television with a golf club in his hands.
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