NORTON — On a day early in 2017, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy sat down to eat lunch. The operative word is “sat,’’ as Woods could barely walk at the time.
“He wasn’t swinging,’’ said McIlroy. “He wasn’t playing. He just started to walk again. To think of where he was then to now [in] just over a year, it’s incredible.’’
Woods underwent back surgery four times from 2014 to 2017. With 14 major titles to his name — second only to Jack Nicklaus’s 18 — Woods hardly would have been blamed for shelving his clubs and retiring to parenthood full time.
Though he does carve out ample time for daughter Sam and son Charlie, Woods still possesses the competitive flame that defined the peak of his career. Miraculously, he’s begun to muster some of those performances, too, thrusting him back into contention on the PGA Tour long before he thought it possible.
In a career full of remarkable years, Woods says 2018 is among his best.
“The last few years seemed like it took centuries,’’ Woods said as he prepared for Thursday’s pro-am at the Dell Technologies Championship. “This has been one of my best years, considering that I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just didn’t have a clue. The fact that I’ve been able to make it this far is very exciting to me. I have a bright future ahead of me.’’
Woods continues to seek his first victory since August 2013, when he won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Still, he’s been in the mix at two of this year’s major championships, finishing in a tie for sixth at the British Open and solo second at the PGA Championship.
Entering the second leg of the FedExCup playoffs, Woods sits 25th, with the top 70 advancing to next week’s BMW Championship. The playoffs culminate with the Tour Championship in Atlanta beginning Sept. 20 and featuring the top 30 in the standings.
Simply being back in the playoff conversation was enough to make Woods smile.
“I would have taken this in a heartbeat,’’ he said. “You have a chance to win two major championships, you’ll be in the playoffs, and you’re right there to be on the Ryder Cup team. As I said, it’s been one of my best years as a whole.’’
Until 2017, the 12th hole at TPC Boston was remarkably unremarkable. A generic par 4 of 456 yards neither challenging nor creative, it begged for an infusion of pep. That’s where Gil Hanse stepped in.
The renowned course architect stretched No. 12 to more than 500 yards, doubled the width of the fairway, and plopped a centerline bunker 300 yards from the tee. If inducing chaos was Hanse’s intended result, job well done.
Last year’s Dell Technologies champion, Justin Thomas, elected to play his tee shot in all four rounds into the bordering fairway on No. 13. Others found themselves digging out of the new bunker, often having to lay up.
The changes in Arnold Palmer’s original design ruffled some feathers. Player reaction to the bunker in particular was so overwhelmingly negative that it was eliminated prior to this year’s tournament.
“That bunker just didn’t need to be there,’’ said Thomas, who sits third behind Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson in the FedExCup standings. “Now that it’s over with, I think we can all agree it was a pretty bad hole before.’’
Thomas thought the 12th would have been more palatable as a par 5. Not everyone shares his view. McIlroy felt the bunker added a different mental element to the hole.
“It’s funny, that bunker on 12, I can see how it worked with how wide the fairway was,’’ he said. “Now that they’ve taken that bunker away, the fairway is 70 yards wide. It’s sort of a nothing tee shot without the bunker, where last year at least it made you do something. So I think there’s still a couple of tweaks to make it perfect.’’
A year removed from winning the Dell Technologies, Thomas is still reaping the rewards. On Wednesday night he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. Describing Thomas’s offering as high and tight might be an understatement.
“I’m pretty disappointed with [my] effort,’’ he said. “But it was fun. [The] one thing I wasn’t going to do is throw it in the dirt.’’
Thomas felt like a kid in a candy store, toeing the rubber on the mound of his favorite childhood team. Growing up in Louisville, Ky., professional sports were nowhere to be found, so Thomas had to get creative and ended up turning to his uncle, Bill.
“He grew up in the Boston area and basically refused to get me any sort of gift for [my] birthday or Christmas unless it was related to the Red Sox,’’ said Thomas. “I had Red Sox stuff everywhere.’’