Rickie Fowler shot an incredible 11-under-par 61 to win the Hero World Challenge as Tiger successfully returned
Fowler rallied from a seven-shot deficit by starting his final round with seven straight birdies at Albany Golf Club and closing with an 11-under 61 for a four-shot victory over Charley Hoffman. It was the second victory of the year for Fowler, and the second time he has ended a year with multiple victories worldwide.
“Finally just kind of got everything to piece together,” said Fowler, who moves to No. 7 in the world.
In a week that began with so much curiosity over how Woods would perform, he had his best result in four years. More than his score, he looked just as strong at end, including a vicious recoil on a 2-iron he hit from 265 yards on the third hole that ran through the green.
Playing for the first time in 10 months while recovering from fusion surgery on his lower back — his fourth back surgery in three years — Woods shot another 31 on the front nine, closed with back-to-back bogeys and shot a 68.
He tied for ninth in the 18-man field, his best result since a playoff loss at this holiday event in 2013 at Sherwood Country Club in California.
“I’m excited,” Woods said. “This is the way I’ve been playing at home.”
He still finished 10 shots behind Fowler. Then again, Fowler didn’t give anyone much of a chance.
Fowler, whose lone PGA TOUR victory this year was in the Honda Classic, was close to flawless on the front nine. He holed birdie putts of about 12 feet on the first two holes, hit a gap wedge to 3 feet on the par-5 third, made his toughest putt into the green from 15 feet on No. 4, and then holed a bunker shot on No. 5. He followed that with another wedge that spun back to a foot on the par-5 sixth, and he hit out of a bunker to about 7 feet on the next hole.
“I knew I needed to get off to a quick start to at least show Charley I was there,” Fowler said.
By then, he was tied for the lead as Hoffman, who birdied his first hole, began to drop shots and work to make par. He never caught up and shot 72. Fowler went out in 28 and then added birdies on the 11th and 13th holes to stretch his lead. Fowler finished at 14-under 274.
Tommy Fleetwood, the Race to Dubai winner from England who is getting married Tuesday in the Bahamas, closed with a 67 and tied for third with Jordan Spieth (69), who has not finished out of the top 10 since the PGA Championship.
A year ago, Woods returned from a 15-month hiatus from back surgeries and showed flashes of his old self, particularly when he shot 65 in the second round and ended the week with 24 birdies. Woods said nothing about his health that week, though his back couldn’t withstand the rough at Torrey Pines and the 16-hour flight to Dubai. He withdrew after one round at Dubai with back spasmS and had the fusion surgery in April.
This return was different from how far he hit the ball with plenty of speed in his swing (his ball speed approached 180 mph), and he made more putts from the 8- to 15-foot range than he has in recent years.
Conditions were far tamer for the final round and Woods got off to a start strong, buoyed by driving the par-4 seventh green and curling in a 25-foot eagle putt. His birdie on No. 9 gave him another 31 on the front — his second such score in two days — and never ending interest from the gallery. On Sunday, that included his two children dressed in red shirts, and tennis great Rafa Nadal.
He just couldn’t keep it going. Woods chopped up the 10th hole on his way to double bogey, and while he added three birdies with his power and putting along the back nine, he three-putted the 18th from about 15 feet for his second straight bogey.
“He’s obviously a lot more upbeat, a lot more positive, a lot healthier than he was last year at this time,” said Justin Thomas, the PGA TOUR Player of the Year who was paired with him in the first and final rounds. “He’s got a lot of energy. It’s just so weird to say that you’re excited for somebody else’s year, but it will be a fun year. And I hope we duel it out a lot this upcoming year.”
Woods appears to be back, at least to playing. He has not said where he will start in 2018, though he made it clear he plans on not being a stranger. The best bet is the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he has won eight times and considers a hometown event from his roots in California.
“I don’t know what my schedule is going to be, but my expectations are we’ll be playing next year,” he said. “How many? Where? I don’t know yet, but we’ll figure it out.”