By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Tiger Woods celebrated his 41st birthday on Friday and long-time friend and fellow professional Notah Begay III predicts he will have more to celebrate in a triumphant return to the PGA Tour in 2017.
Though Woods has competed only once over the past 16 months due to chronic back problems that required multiple surgeries, Begay was encouraged by that solitary tournament appearance earlier this month in the Bahamas. Woods made his long anticipated return at the Hero World Challenge which he hosts and despite delivering mixed form he ended the week with a tournament-high aggregate of 24 birdies. "I don't think anybody in the inner circle, including Tiger, could have been happier,” Begay told Reuters about Woods’ performance in the elite, limited-field event. “There was a lot of curiosity around what was going to happen, what his swing was going to look like … how his mind was going to adjust to the tournament environment because it's just so different, you can’t recreate that focus in practice. “For him to go out and make more birdies than anybody else in the field after being on the shelf for 15 months was quite remarkable. He's seeing some definite returns on the time that he's put in with regard to his recovery.” Woods has already committed to playing in the PGA Tour’s Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club from Feb. 16-19 and is also expected to tee it up three weeks earlier in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
PEAKING BY SPRING Begay, a 44-year-old Native American who won four times on the PGA Tour, has forecast that Woods will hit top form by the opening major of the year, the April 6-9 Masters.
"I expect him to win, and I expect him to have at least one win next year based upon what I've seen,” said Begay, who played with Woods on the Stanford University golf team. “It's just a matter of getting some more tournament rounds. I'm not going to say it's going to happen early in the year but I think you should expect to see Tiger peak during the spring time." For all the birdies accumulated by Woods over the four rounds of the Hero World Challenge, the roller-coaster nature of his form was illustrated by the fact that he also led the field with six double-bogeys. Former PGA Tour winner Brandel Chamblee, who like Begay works as a Golf Channel analyst, was impressed by Woods' wedge game from outside 70 yards but said that his chipping and driving needed fixing. “There wasn't anything that took place in the Bahamas that wasn't fixable,” said Begay. “I don't think Tiger was comfortable with his three-wood … but that's fixable." Begay said he thought it was too early to tell about Woods' accuracy off the tee.
"He hit something like 52 drivers in the Bahamas and you’ve got to see at least a few hundred before you start figuring out what the patterns and trends are."
Woods bladed a few bunker shots over greens during the Hero World Challenge but Begay saw no indication of the chipping yips that afflicted the former world number one in early 2015. “The majority of chips that I saw around the green that might cause some problems he executed very well, his bunker game was solid, his little feel shots around the green were good,” said Begay. “I'm not going to say there was perfect execution across the board but, for the most part, the shots you would want to have and the outcomes you would expect from a world-class player were all right there."
(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in St. Augustine, Florida; Editing by Larry Fine)