Tiger Woods finishes first tournament back in fine form

Admit it: it’s pretty cool seeing Tiger Woods in the Sunday red-and-black again.

Woods closed out his return to professional golf with a 68 to wrap at -8 for the tournament, a strong finish to a week that exceeded everyone’s expectations. Woods had spent the last 301 days prior to Thursday away from the game of golf, a surgery-and-rehab-induced absence that made most observers wonder if he’d ever return to the game. But Sunday, before a cheering gallery that included everyone from Rafael Nadal to Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, Woods put on a strong performance while outplaying many of the strongest players in the game today.

After posting rounds of 69 and 68 the first two days of the tournament, Woods stumbled a bit on Saturday, finishing with a rocky 75 that cooled some of the fervent speculation about Woods’ ceiling. As if in response to that, Woods did something he hasn’t done in years: proved the world wrong. He rocketed out of the gate on Sunday with a front-nine 31, including three birdies and an eagle. He cooled off a touch on the back nine, double-bogeying the 10th and bogeying the 17th and 18th, but still finished strong and in what appeared to be complete control.

“I knew I was going to play all four rounds, that wasn’t the issue,” Woods said afterward. “The issue was, how was my scoring going to be? How’s my feel? How would I be with adrenaline in my system for the first time in awhile?”

Before anyone starts fitting Woods for another green jacket, though, it’s worth remembering that golf as a sport didn’t exactly stand still while Woods got his life back together. The sport got younger, stronger and much, much better. For evidence, look no further than up the leaderboard at the Hero World Challenge, where Rickie Fowler, who grew up idolizing Woods, reeled off 10 birdies in his first 13 holes. The game’s changed, and Woods is trying to catch up to sprinters from a standing start.

But victory isn’t Woods’ goal, not yet. He cleared by a mile his first hurdle: four days without his back detonating. He’ll figure out from here what needs improvement, but he’s got a foundation now that he didn’t have before.

As for where Woods will tee it up next: a good bet is the Farmers Insurance Open in late January; that course is held at Torrey Pines, one of Woods’ favorites. After that comes the Genesis Open in mid-February, which benefits Woods’ own foundation, and then we’re getting into the Big Names. Mid-March brings the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and then there’s that little tournament in that small town in east Georgia in April.

Predicting Woods’ presence at any of these would’ve seemed foolish even five days ago. But now, we could even start speculating on how well he’ll finish. Amazing what four decent rounds of golf can do.

“Overall, I’m very pleased,” Woods said. “I showed some good signs, I hit some really good shots out there. You know, a bright future.”

Tiger Woods had a spectacular Sunday. (Getty)

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

More from Yahoo Sports:
Alabama in, Ohio State snubbed in college playoffs
Detroit’s Silverdome demolition doesn’t go as planned
Archie Manning: Eli could retire after this year
UFC fighter keeps promise to fan with Down syndrome