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Tiger Woods swings December 2016, AP photo

In this Dec. 4, 2016, file photo, Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the third hole during the final round at the Hero World Challenge golf tournament in Nassau, Bahamas. 

LYNNE SLADKY, ASSOCIATED PRESS

NASSAU, Bahamas — All eyes are on Tiger Woods and his return to golf, even the players he has to beat.

Especially the players.

Woods was on the back end of the practice range Monday at Albany Golf Club, hitting balls with Patrick Reed, when he looked up at a drone buzzing some 50 feet over him in the cloudy sky. He had no idea that Daniel Berger was at the controls.

Berger was on the front of the range, blocked by a row of bushes in the sand dunes. As the drone's camera zoomed in, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Kevin Kisner and their caddies crowded around Berger to look.

They cared more about his reaction to the drone than his swing.

But they are curious about his game.

And those who have played with Woods in recent weeks believe there is reason for the hype.

"People are going to be shocked at how good his game looks," PGA champion Justin Thomas said.

Thomas will have the best seat in the house Thursday when Woods, who had fusion surgery on his lower back in April, plays for the first time in 10 months at the Hero World Challenge. Thomas, named the PGA Tour player of the year after winning five times and the FedEx Cup, is paired with him in the first round.

Thomas spends a fair bit of time with Woods at their Florida homes, and they played a few weeks ago.

The attention on Woods increased in recent days as more players joined him for casual rounds. Brad Faxon caused a stir when he played with Woods, Johnson and President Donald Trump on Friday.

"Tiger looked great to me," Faxon wrote in a story for Golfweek. "I was impressed with how far he hit the ball. Probably on the 10 holes that they were both hitting driver, Tiger hit it past Dustin half the time and Dustin hit it past Tiger half the time. He looked great. I think more than anything, he looked at ease. He was not concerned about swinging hard and going at it with driver. The ball flight, the sound off the club, all of it was right there."

Johnson is among the elite power players in the game. True story?

Johnson smiled.

"He hit it by me a couple of times," Johnson said. "Did I bomb one and he hit it past me? No. But he did hit it past me a few times. He was moving it, though."

All this hype in the chill environment of the Bahamas should sound familiar. It was only last year when Woods returned after 15 months away from the game. He had gone through three back surgeries at that point, the first one right before the 2014 Masters, and Woods looked relatively normal, with freedom in his swing. He made 24 birdies, along with enough mistakes that he finished 14 shots out of the lead, in 15th place among an 18-man field.

Woods missed the cut at Torrey Pines two months later, flew to Dubai and managed one round — a 77 in calm conditions — before withdrawing with back spasms.

What appears to be different this time, at least from those who have played with him, is the absence of pain.

Here is a Golf Channel story on Woods' press conference on Tuesday.

Patrick Reed played nine holes of practice with him Monday morning. He saw Woods do whatever he wanted with his swing and saw an assortment of shots — a stinger off the tee, a low draw, a high cut.

"He seemed to have command of not only the golf club, but his body," Reed said.

It was the first time Reed had played with Woods since the opening round of the Hero World Challenge last year. The difference Reed noticed was that Woods looked more free and fluid in going after any shot.

"It looked like there was a little hesitation the last time I played with him," Reed said. "This time, he was fully committed and fully trusted in his body. There was no pain. That's the biggest thing for me. If he stays healthy, then he'll be back playing golf, hopefully like he used to. I want to see it and I want to compete against it."

Johnson said Friday's round with Woods and the president was a big change from when the two played the opening two rounds at Torrey Pines together in January, when both missed the cut.

"His speed was back. He played a lot better than he did in San Diego, for sure," Johnson said. "He's healthy. To me, he looks strong. He's swinging with speed instead of in San Diego. When I played with him there, he wasn't swinging at it. You could tell he was hurt."

The question is whether there is rust from having been gone from competition for so long.

Woods has played only three tournaments since August 2015. Three of the four times that he returned to competition dating to that first back surgery before the 2014 Masters, Woods lasted no more than three starts before taking more time off.


A look at his comebacks:

2003 BUICK INVITATIONAL

Length of absence: Ten weeks.

Cause: Arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of 2002 season.

Previous start: Runner-up at the Target World Challenge.

World ranking when he left: 1.

World ranking when he returned: 1.

Result: Won by four shots, the first of five PGA Tour victories.

Length of return: Played a full schedule for the next five years.

2006 U.S. OPEN

Length of absence: Ten weeks.

Cause: Father's death.

Previous start: Tied for third at the Masters, three shots out of the lead.

World ranking when he left: 1.

World ranking when he returned: 1.

Result: Missed the cut for the first time in a major. He would win the final two majors of the year.

Length of return: Played a full schedule the next two years.

2009 WGC-ACCENTURE MATCH PLAY

Length of absence: Nine months.

Cause: Reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

Previous start: Won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for his 14th major.

World ranking when he left: 1.

World ranking when he returned: 1.

Result: Beat Brendan Jones in opening round, lost in the second round to Tim Clark. He won two starts later at Bay Hill.

Length of return: Played a full schedule of 20 events.

2010 MASTERS

Age: 34.

Length of absence: Five months.

Cause: Personal issues involving multiple extramarital affairs.

Previous start: Won the Australian Masters.

World ranking when he left: 1.

World ranking when he returned: 1.

Result: Tied for fourth, five shots out of the lead. He was tied for the lead going to the back nine.

Length of return: Played 16 events in 2010.

2011 WGC-BRIDGESTONE INVITATIONAL

Age: 35.

Length of absence: Three months.

Cause: Leg injuries.

Previous start: Withdrew from The Players Championship after a 42 on the front nine.

World ranking when he left: 8.

World ranking when he returned: 28.

Result: Tied for 37th, 18 shots out of the lead. It was his second straight year finishing 18 shots behind or worse at Firestone Country Club.

Length of return: Six events the remainder of 2011, full schedule in 2012 and 2013.

2014 QUICKEN LOANS NATIONAL

Age: 38.

Length of absence: Four months.

Cause: Back surgery.

Previous start: Tie for 25th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, nine shots out of the lead.

World ranking when he left: 1.

World ranking when he returned: 5.

Result: Missed the cut with rounds of 74-75.

Length of return: Three starts.

2014 HERO WORLD CHALLENGE

Age: 38.

Length of absence: Four months.

Cause: Recovery from back surgery.

Previous start: Missed the cut in the PGA Championship with rounds of 74-74 at Valhalla.

World ranking when he left: 10.

World ranking when he returned: 24.

Result: Struggled with his chipping. Tied for 17th in an 18-man field, 26 shots out of the lead.

Length of return: Two starts.

2015 MASTERS

Age: 39.

Length of absence: Two months.

Cause: Chipping issues.

Previous start: Withdrew from Farmers Insurance Open after 11 holes, saying his glutes wouldn't activate. He was 2-over par and tied for 130th.

World ranking when he left: 56.

World ranking when he returned: 111.

Result: Tie for 17th, 13 shots out of the lead. Jordan Spieth tied his 72-hole scoring record that he had set 18 years ago.

Length of return: Nine starts.

2016 HERO WORLD CHALLENGE

Age: 40

Length of absence: 15 months.

Cause: Two back surgeries:

Previous start: Tie for 10th in the 2015 Wyndham Championship.

World ranking when he left: 257.

World ranking when he returned: 898.

Result: Finished 15th against an 18-man field, 14 shots out of the lead. Made 24 birdies.

Length of return: Three starts.

2017 HERO WORLD CHALLENGE

Age: 41.

Length of absence: Ten months.

Cause: Fourth back surgery.

Previous start: Withdrew after a 77 in the first round of Dubai Desert Classic because of back spasms.

World ranking when he left: 674.

World ranking when he returned: 1,199.

Result: Tournament starts Thursday.

Length of return: To be determined.

• Second-round scores in Scoreboard. B5

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