Sports

Hero World Challenge storylines: Tiger Woods is back, plus other health updates

NASSAU, Bahamas — The PGA Tour’s regular season might be over, but men’s golf silly season is underway, starting with this week’s Hero World Challenge at Albany in the Bahamas.

The non-official event brings 20 of the tour’s best players together — including perhaps the greatest of all, Tiger Woods, who will be playing for the first time in more than seven months.

“My game feels rusty; I haven’t played in a while,” Woods said during a news conference Tuesday. “I had my subtalar fused. I’m excited to compete and play, and I’m just as curious as all of you are to see what happens because I haven’t done it in a while.”

Here are some of the top storylines to watch in the Hero World Challenge, in which reigning FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland is the two-time reigning champion:

The GOAT is back

Woods, the tournament host, will tee it up for the first time since he withdrew from the weather-delayed third round of the Masters in April. Woods played nine holes in the event’s 18-hole pro-am Wednesday and isn’t concerned about walking 81 holes over five days.

Woods, who turns 48 next month, said he no longer has severe pain in his right ankle and foot after he underwent fusion surgery less than eight months ago to address post-traumatic arthritis he suffered because of a car wreck in February 2021.

When Woods was asked Tuesday whether he believes he can still win tournaments, he said, “Absolutely.”

“I’m very pumped to have Tiger back this week,” Justin Thomas said. “I think we all are. I know he misses hanging out with us, and the competitor he is, he doesn’t enjoy not being able to get out here and compete. This is great.”

Will Zalatoris said Woods’ latest comeback continues to amaze him.

“It’s ridiculous,” Zalatoris said. “There’s no other way to put it. What he’s doing and what he’s gone through with his body, especially to come back and win another major after everything that he had gone through. It’s mind blowing to me in so many aspects, and we all appreciated it.”

Willy Z’s return

Woods isn’t the only ball-striking machine making a comeback at the Hero World Challenge this week. Zalatoris, who hasn’t competed since the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in March, is in the 20-man field.

Zalatoris underwent a microdiscectomy on his back April 8, after he was forced to pull out of the Masters.

“It’s been an interesting seven months,” Zalatoris said. “You know, kind of a golfer’s worst nightmare is feeling your back giving out on the driving range at Augusta 30 minutes before your tee time. But no, it’s been a patience game. It’s been a grind.”

Zalatoris’ back problems had been building since the 2021 Open Championship. He suffered two herniated discs in August 2022, a week after he picked up his first PGA Tour victory at the FedEx St. Jude Championship in Memphis. He missed the last two legs of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the BMW Championship and Tour Championship, as well as the Presidents Cup.

Zalatoris considered having back surgery then, but elected for injections and rehab instead.

“No surgeon wants to go in and do back surgery on someone that’s 26,” Zalatoris said.

Zalatoris came back and finished solo fourth at The Genesis in February, but otherwise struggled this past season before shutting it down.

During his rehabilitation from surgery, Zalatoris said he couldn’t pick up his dogs for four or five months. He did rehab six days a week. He started hitting balls a couple of months ago and was on a strict ball count. He wasn’t allowed to play golf for more than three straight days. He no longer sits on bar stools and doesn’t carry a backpack when he travels.

“I had a lot of really good advice from guys that have had to go through the same thing and all of them said, ‘Take your time. No one’s ever come back from an injury taking too long,'” Zalatoris said.

Zalatoris occupied his time by completing his psychology degree at Wake Forest. He only needed to complete a few courses to do it.

“It was pretty funny taking some elective classes when all the kids were 18, 19 in the summers, and I’m 27,” Zalatoris said. “I’m writing my résumé for work and, you know, a LinkedIn account and whatnot. There were some pretty funny aspects in there.”

Zalatoris, who has slipped to No. 33 in the Official World Golf Ranking, isn’t sure what to expect this week.

“You know, playing 72 holes, having everybody here, playing obviously against the best players in the world, even though this week is an unofficial event, it’s still really good for me to get 72 holes and kind of see where I’m at,” he said.

Spieth’s wrist mystery

Jordan Spieth battled a wrist injury for much of this past season, and he hurt it again in October when he was reaching for a toaster to make breakfast for his son. He had earlier injured the wrist in May and nearly missed the PGA Championship.

“I was out for another couple weeks,” Spieth said. “And I finally got to the bottom of everything, so I’ve had really good physical therapists and had to add that into my routine in the last couple months, and will continue to. But essentially got to the bottom of it and was able to get in some really good work, although maybe not as much as I would have liked to.”

Spieth said he treated the first injury with ice and rest, believing it was inflammation. After the most recent setback, doctors discovered the injury involved the ulnar nerve, which, according to Spieth, “is not anything to mess with.”

“It ended up being a nerve thing, which is nice because I wasn’t doing anything either time that I hurt it that should have caused what happened,” Spieth said. “Both MRIs were very similar, and shouldn’t have been in the pain and lack of mobility that I had initially after it happened. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense off the MRIs, and so then just did a bunch of tests and some work.”

Spieth didn’t win a tournament this past season, but feels good about his game heading into the offseason.

“I’ve been feeling healthy,” he said. “I’ve been feeling really, really optimistic about some of the stuff that we’ve been doing and so I plan to push it.”

Morikawa’s big changes

Two-time major champion Collin Morikawa is also on the mend after he was forced to withdraw from the made-for-TV Netflix Cup on Nov. 15 with a bad back. Morikawa also dealt with a back injury at The Memorial in June.

“It’s not fun being in that position,” Morikawa said. “I’ve talked to other players about this. It’s not good. I’m 26 and now this is twice in kind of the past handful of months, but it’s something we’re going to be on top of. We kind of know what to do.”

At least Morikawa no longer has to talk about his long winless streak on tour. He ended a 27-month winless drought by capturing the Zozo Championship in Japan on Oct. 22. It was his first victory since he won his second major at the 2021 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England.

Morikawa’s sixth PGA Tour victory came a few weeks after he departed with longtime swing coach Rick Sessinghaus after an 18-year relationship. Morikawa is now working with Mark Blackburn, who also coaches Max Homa and Justin Rose.

“He’s more than just a coach, he’s one of my really good friends,” Morikawa said of Sessinghaus. “He’s someone I’ve always looked up to, someone that’s been there for every step of my life essentially, not just in golf but just kind of living life, right? It wasn’t easy, and sometimes things happen like that. But 18 years is a long time.

“So that wasn’t easy at all. I had to do it, I just felt like it was time to make a change at some point. What I saw kind of over the past two years wasn’t to my expectations and standards and goals what I wanted.”

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