Nassau - Tiger Woods never knew he had so many friends among
his golfing rivals until he needed their support after a 15-month back injury
layoff that ends on Thursday at the Hero World Challenge.
The former world number one returns in the 18-player
invitational after having not played a competitive round since August 2015, the
longest layoff of the 14-time major champion's career.
"I've missed being out here with the guys. I miss the
fraternity. I miss the camaraderie," Woods said on Tuesday. "I've had
a lot more close friends out here than I thought."
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson says Woods has
benefitted from bonds made in the days when he inspired an epic fan following
but seemed distant and alone from rivals.
"Tiger is a great man and to see him open up, I think
it's for the better," Watson said. "He has got a smile on the face
and a bounce in his step. Who cares about the golf?
"I think he's learning that now that we all miss him.
We miss the interaction with him, seeing him practice, just listening and
learning from him. So I think he sees how much he truly is missed."
Woods grew nearer to some players during his time as a US
assistant Ryder Cup captain earlier this year.
"My relationships with a lot of these players have
gotten closer, either through hanging out at the restaurant (the Woods Jupiter)
or if it's out playing or the Ryder Cup, going out to dinner and BSing, it has
been fun," Woods said.
"I've had a lot of friends help me. It's hard to fathom
how many players have really rallied and tried to help me come back and offered
any kind of advice, any kind of help, whether it's with equipment, playing,
getting out and going out to dinner, just being part of the tour and part of
Woods seemed a man alone during much of his career's success
and after his infamous sex scandal, but has kindled new friendships from a new
generation of tour players, those he inspired rather than dominated.
"I think Tiger has softened now with his kids and the
way he's interacted in the (Ryder Cup) team room, what he said, how he put his
arm around certain people and trying to inspire them," Watson said.
"His own foundation is probably changing him, making him realize that there's
more than just golf or being the greatest golfer of all time. That's going to
help him in golf and it's going to help him in life."
Watson, the 2012 and 2014 Masters winner, won last year's
Challenge with a 25-under par 263 total over the 7,267-yard Ernie Els-designed
layout at the Albany resort.
The event is owned by Woods' foundation and is putting down
roots in the Bahamas after three sites in three years. Watson is among those
who have played it through several injury comebacks for Woods, whose ailing
knees and back cut into his campaigns before wiping out his 2015-16 season.
"It's amazing to see the outpouring of support from our
side. He has meant so much to all of us. He has inspired all of us, touched all
of us in different ways," Watson said. "We're just excited, us guys
in the field. We're pulling for him and want him to be the best he can."
Watson summed up the feelings of many golf fans who dream of
Woods' glory era but just want to see him play, in the same way that Jack
Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were loved long past their peak days.
"Just let us watch you for four days," Watson
said. "I don't care what the score is. We want our champion back. We want
our Tiger Woods back.
"If he feels good after four days and he's not hurting
on Monday morning, then he'll play in January. He'll play these events that
we're used to seeing him in and used to watching him dominate and get excited