PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | There are 52 wooden steps cut into the steep hillside leading from Riviera Country Club’s 18th green to the sprawling clubhouse that sits like a castle atop the crest.
A moment after finishing a final-round 73 that did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding his return to competitive golf, Tiger Woods marched up the stairs with his head down as the cheers continued around him.
The climb almost certainly was harder than Woods made it look – everyone arrives at the top with their heart rate rising – but disguising the difficulty of what he was doing was how he seemed to do everything at the Genesis Invitational, where Woods radiated the glow of a man reborn.
“It's progress, headed in the right direction,” Woods said Sunday afternoon when asked to assess his week. “It certainly was a little bit more difficult than I probably let on.”
There was a time when finishing T45 tasted like bad sushi to Woods, and there is a part of the 47-year-old that probably still feels that way, but this is a different time.
By his own admission, there aren’t many more weeks like this in Woods’ golf future. He has been stitched and fused together more times than he can count and, if the ice baths and therapy do their part, he intends to play the major championships for as long as he can and, once in a while, tee it up one or two more times each year.
Playing the weekend at Riviera in 2-under-par doesn’t mean Woods will play the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in two weeks. The Players Championship in three weeks could be in play, but it’s most likely that Woods will wait until the Masters, with all of its hills, before playing his next tournament.
Woods still feels the tug of competition, but he can’t will away the pain and soreness coming from walking 18 holes, especially four tournament days in a row.
“I miss the fraternity of the guys,” Woods said.
“I saw him leaving (Saturday) night, and he was limping a lot. Just being out here shows his heart and determination.”
That’s from a man who was a fraternity of one for a decade or longer when he owned the sport like no one before. It was as if a force field surrounded him from the moment he arrived until he drove off into the night with another trophy in his collection.
For Kramer Hickok, who drew the Sunday pairing with Woods and Tyrrell Hatton, it was the first time he played with Woods. Hickok had played in front of him and behind him at events, but there he was Sunday morning with a chill in the air and a legend chatting him up.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but it’s unbelievable what he’s doing,” Hickok said. “I saw him leaving (Saturday) night, and he was limping a lot. Just being out here shows his heart and determination.”
It was evident at Riviera that Woods has been away from competition. His iron play – the game’s gold standard in that department – wasn’t fully dialed in, and his play around the greens was shaggy.
Still, Woods ripped driver after driver, relying on a power cut that routinely ran out more than 300 yards, long enough that Rory McIlroy was only half-joking when he said he needed to reset the loft on his driver because his buddy had pushed his tee shots past him too many times.
Having that kind of power is probably what led Woods to make the unfortunate decision to discreetly hand Justin Thomas a tampon walking off the ninth tee on Thursday. What was intended to be a private joke ignited a justifiable brushfire of criticism and perhaps reminded Woods again of how visible everything he does in public is.
On Saturday, when Woods shot 4-under 67, he was keeping an eye on the leaderboard, hoping to stay close enough to the front to give himself a chance on Sunday. He still thinks that way, though Woods understood the reality by nightfall.
“It’s the best I’ve played,” Woods said after his Saturday round.
Thirty-one years after Woods made his PGA Tour debut here as a 16-year-old amateur, he still hasn’t won at Riviera – a distinction he shares with Jack Nicklaus – but he is now the tournament host and his image is splashed around the course and clubhouse, celebrating the accomplishments of his TGR Foundation.
Early in the week, Woods met with McIlroy and others to continue mapping out the PGA Tour’s path forward as it restructures itself in the wake of LIV Golf’s arrival. The early feedback suggests the designated tournaments are doing what they are designed to do – get the best players together more often and create more high-profile drama – but there are still important decisions to be made. Woods will be part of those decisions.
At his core, Woods remains a competitive golfer, even if his body makes it almost impossibly hard. The galleries, three and four deep on some holes, never left him.
“He’s playing golf with one hand tied behind his back,” Hickok said. “But I think he can win again.”
After Woods had signed his scorecard and done his media duties Sunday, he limped up a paved path beside Riviera’s clubhouse. He stopped to be introduced to Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who had been in Woods’ gallery, then he slipped inside again.
Walking toward another night of rest and recovery.
And whatever comes next.
Top: At his core, Tiger Woods remains a competitive golfer, even if his body makes it almost impossibly hard.
Brian Rothmuller, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images