NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Justin Thomas is paired with Tiger Woods in the Hero World Challenge for the second straight year, and just like last time, he has an idea what to expect from him.
By now, so does everyone else.
Woods was a mystery a year ago. He was No. 1,199 in the world ranking when he returned from a fourth back surgery, having competed in only one PGA Tour event since August 2015. Thomas had played golf with him at home in Florida and thought he looked great, a tough sell to those who hadn’t seen Woods.
“The consistency wasn’t there,” Thomas said Wednesday after his pro-am round at Albany Golf Club. “But the great shots — the ones that made you stop and think a second — were. The more we played, the more we saw it. I wasn’t going to say anything because you don’t know what’s going to happen and how he’s going to feel. But I thought if he stays healthy, I think he’s going to win this year.
“First off, it’s him. You always feel like he’s going to do what people don’t expect, because that’s what he loves to do.”
There are no surprises this year.
Woods now is No. 13 in the world as he hosts this holiday tournament for the 20th time. It’s his first 72-hole tournament since he ended his remarkable comeback by winning the Tour Championship in late September for his 80th career PGA Tour victory.
He twice contended at majors, taking a brief lead Sunday in the British Open and challenging Brooks Koepka to the end at the PGA Championship.
“Just being able to win a golf tournament again, considering where I was at this point last year and (before) that point, I think what I’ve accomplished this year has been pretty special,” Woods said.
It’s another strong field at Albany with six of the top 10 in the world among the 18 players. Missing is Koepka, the U.S. Open and PGA champion who returned to No. 1 in the world this week, along with Jordan Spieth, who got married over the weekend in Texas.
Francesco Molinari, the British Open champion and Ryder Cup star, also chose to take this year off, leaving Masters champion Patrick Reed as the only major champion in the field.
The unofficial event offers world ranking points, which matters most to Justin Rose because he has a chance to return to No. 1 in his see-saw battle with Koepka. The winner gets $1 million — everyone in the field earned at least $2.6 million on the PGA Tour this season.
For Woods, it’s a chance to build on momentum going into 2019.
“A guy like Tiger, just give him a speck of confidence or a speck of just feeling good, anything can happen,” said Keegan Bradley, a late entry at the Bahamas when Tommy Fleetwood withdrew. “You can see that with Tiger, where he’s just such a good player. He’s going to get some momentum and he’ll do great.”
Henrik Stenson was among those who hadn’t seen Woods in nearly a year when he arrived at the World Challenge last year. They were paired in the second round, and Woods was hitting his drives alongside and often past the Swede.
“I thought he was having a lot of speed when I saw him coming back here a year ago,” Stenson said. “I thought he was going after the ball very strongly and he hit it a long, long way. I didn’t really imagine him being able to go flat out like I thought he was at that point. He was obviously ready to play and ready to go after it at full speed.”
Woods hasn’t figured out his schedule for next year, only that he’s thankful he won’t have to play as much at the end of the season like he did this year.
Because he was a late qualifier for a World Golf Championship at Firestone, Woods wound up playing seven times in nine weeks, all of them big events in hot weather, ending with the super-intense Ryder Cup matches in France.
That was one week after his emotional win at the Tour Championship, and he says he was drained.
This season, the FedEx Cup playoffs eliminated one tournament, and the Presidents Cup is not until December. The biggest stretch he would face is the British Open and a World Golf Championship, a week off, and then three FedEx Cup playoff events.
He ended a busy stretch last year by winning at East Lake, so he knows physically he’s up for it.
“Now it’s just about managing and making sure I’m fresh for events,” Woods said, “because I know I can win tournaments again.”