Golf: A softened, grateful Tiger Woods finds support from rivals he inspired

Tiger Woods practicing on the putting green ahead of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, The Bahamas, on Nov 29, 2016, in Nassau, Bahamas.
Tiger Woods practicing on the putting green ahead of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, The Bahamas, on Nov 29, 2016, in Nassau, Bahamas. PHOTO: AFP

NASSAU (BAHAMAS) (AFP) - Tiger Woods never knew he had so many friends among his golfing rivals until he needed their support after a 15-month injury layoff that ends Thursday at the Hero World Challenge.

The former world No. 1 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," he 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 benefited 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 practise, 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 BS-ing, 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 the fraternity."

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 realise 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 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 about."