TOKYO — “I’ve missed this,” Tiger Woods said, flashing his unmistakable smile to a horde of shrieking fans cramped inside the Nike store in Harajuku.
In the Q&A that followed, he clarified what exactly he meant by this. He’s missed Japan, where he hasn’t played an official round since the George W. Bush administration. He’s missed Asia, where he hasn’t teed it up in a tournament since 2013. And he’s missed the energy that comes with competing, which he hasn’t done since a lackluster FedEx Cup playoff run two months ago ended one step shy of the Tour Championship.
Woods will get his first chance to wash away a disappointing end to last season this week, when he begins his 2019-’20 campaign roughly 7,000 miles from Augusta National, the sight of his latest (and greatest?) triumph. The 15-time major champion begins the competitive portion of his weeklong Japanese sojourn on Monday with The Challenge: Japan Skins, when Woods will wear a mic and face off against Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Japanese native son Hideki Matsuyama for a total purse of $350,000. The first in a series of annual competitions staged by GOLFTV, the one-day event is based loosely off The Skins Game, an unofficial offseason PGA Tour event last held in 2008, and will be held at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, which will also host next week’s ZOZO Championship, the first official PGA Tour event played in Japan.
Monday will mark Woods’ first competitive round since he had arthroscopic surgery in August to repair minor cartilage damage to his left knee. Meanwhile, the ZOZO also will almost certainly be his only start before deciding whether to take himself with one of his four captain’s picks for the U.S. Presidents Cup team that will compete in Australia in December. Woods will want to flash better form than he showed toward the end of summer, when he missed the cut at the Open Championship, withdrew from the Northern Trust with an oblique strain and finished T-37 out of 70 at the BMW Championship.
That context will attract extra attention to Woods’ performance at both the Skins game and the ZOZO. Even so, this week was always going to be a spectacle. Woods’ mere presence in this golf-enamored country brings with it a tangible air of excited anticipation—and earnest appreciation. Woods last visited Japan in 2006, when his bid to win a third-straight Dunlop Phoenix Tournament (“the DPT” as Woods called it Sunday) ended with a playoff loss to Padraig Harrington.
Back then, a 30-year-old Woods was at the height of his powers—he had won the prior two majors by a combined seven shots, was No. 1 in the World Rankings by a comical margin and hadn’t yet undergone a major surgery. On Sunday, Woods returned to Tokyo as a 43-year-old father of two with an unfortunately extensive injury history. Still, he received what can only be described as a hero’s welcome.
Woods delighted fans with an appearance at the Nike store. He visited a children’s center and looked spry as he participated in a chaotic relay race involving putters, tennis balls, soccer goals and ostensibly something resembling rules. And he finished the day by giving the Meiji University women’s golf team a clinic at their on-campus practice facility.
As Woods was smiling for cameras and answering questions, two of his Challenge opponents were shooting sub-par rounds on the final day of the PGA Tour’s CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea. Day’s one-under 71 saw him finish T-31 in his first tour start of the 2019-’20 season, while Matsuyama shot a bogey-free 65 to climb into a tie for third. The two players, both of whom will enter Monday’s competition ranked outside the top 20, are trying to recapture the magic that saw Day summit the World Rankings and Matsuyama reach World No. 2.
Then there’s McIlroy, the reigning FedEx Cup champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year. The World No. 2 was at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday night to watch New Zealand sadly humiliate his Ireland team, 46-14, in the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup. McIlroy’s last start was last month at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, where—much to his dismay—his 15-under total only yielded a tie for 26th, his worst finish since missing the cut at the Open at Royal Portrush.
If the money and an opportunity to beat three of the game’s biggest stars in front of a global audience isn’t enough, McIlroy has a few options in the way of extra motivation: He could re-visit his loss to Woods in March’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, or he could read Brooks Koepka’s comments from earlier this week, when he said Rory isn’t a rival because he hasn’t won a major since Koepka arrived on the PGA Tour.
All four of Monday’s participants are familiar with high-profile events, but Woods especially should feel comfortable under the circumstances (and under the lights, as the last few holes will take place after sunset). This will be his 24th appearance in a made-for-TV event. The most recent came last November, when he lost a $9 million match to Phil Mickelson in Las Vegas. The first was 23 years ago in a Skins Game that included Tom Watson, who turned 70 last month.
Somewhat surprisingly, Woods has been on the winning side just 11 of the previous 23 times, meaning Monday is an opportunity to get back to .500. It’s also an opportunity for Tiger to show the golf world his surgically repaired knee is fine, that the late-summer struggles were but a bump in the road and that his game is Presidents Cup-ready.