Parker Rollins had been standing awhile along a rope line at Ridgewood Country Club on Tuesday when his mother, Shirley Rollins, excitedly tapped him on the shoulders. His favorite player, Tiger Woods, was finally heading in their direction.
Parker, 11, stuck his arms over the rope. “Hi, Tiger,” he said. “Welcome to Ridgewood.”
Woods, heading to the third tee of a practice round for the Northern Trust tournament, turned and flashed a grin. “Thank you,” he mouthed.
“Dude!” Shirley Rollins said to her son. “You made him smile!”
Woods has done a lot of that lately, as he charged into contention at two major tournaments over the last month and validated his comeback from four spine operations. Every time he steps on a course these days, Woods plays more and more like his old self, golf’s dominant force and primary selling point.
At the same time, after his long absences from the game and a looming threat that he might never return, a more sentimental bond seems to have grown between Woods and his galleries. He said fans, always thunderous when he is on a tear, have embraced him differently now. And he them.
“I think that people are more, I guess, appreciative,” Woods said before his practice round. “I don’t want to make that sound wrong or anything, but they know I’m at the tail end of my career. I don’t know how many more years I have left. But I’m certainly not like I was when I was 22. At 42, it’s a different ballgame.”
Woods has not played in this tournament — the first part of the four-leg Fed Ex playoffs — since 2013, when it was known as The Barclays and was held at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City. Woods’s back was already nagging him, and he crumbled to all fours after hooking a fairway metal that sent spasms shooting along his spine. He somehow finished second anyway, but that moment was the beginning of a protracted decline, culminating in his fourth back surgery, a spinal fusion, in April 2017.
Woods played a total of just 19 PGA Tour events from 2014 through 2017, and he has not won a tournament in five years. He has played 14 times this year, finishing in the top 10 five times, including a tie for sixth at the British Open last month, and he will start the Northern Trust ranked 20th in the FedExCup standings.
Coming off his stunning runner-up finish at the P.G.A. Championship 10 days ago, Woods added another start to his agenda, the BMW Championship from Sept. 6 to 9 at Aronimink Golf Club. Combined with the Northern Trust and the Dell Technologies Championship next week, that will mean three tournaments in three weeks for him, the most he has played consecutively since 2013.
He also has his sights set on qualifying for the Tour Championship, which begins Sept. 20, and he is expected to be named a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup team, which would mean playing five of the next six weeks.
“Yeah, that is a lot of golf,” Woods said, adding: “That’s one of the hard things this year is trying to find the right balance. As the summer has gone on, I’ve gotten better and felt better. This is a pretty important stretch.”
At Ridgewood on Tuesday, the gallery trailing him ballooned into the thousands by the third hole. Elsewhere on the course, other golfers could practice in relative obscurity.
Ticket sales for the tournament have jumped 170 percent on StubHub.com, a secondary market, compared with a year ago, a company spokesman said. And golf ratings have already benefited from Woods’s return, jumping 69 percent from 2017 for the final round of the P.G.A. Championship.
“I’ve had excitement,” Woods said. “I’ve had people into it over the years. But this has been so different.”
Woods breezed through his practice round at Ridgewood, bouncing a ball between his legs in his trademark fashion on the third fairway and making his playing partners, Zach Johnson and Kevin Chappell, laugh in disbelief at the beauty of his drive on No. 8. And on the par-5 17th, Woods even allowed a few small children to sneak beneath the ropes for an autograph as he made his way up the fairway.
After struggling off the tee during the P.G.A. Championship at Bellerive Country Club, Woods said he had been experimenting with different shafts and lofts on his driver and 3-wood, knowing that the soft conditions and thick rough at Ridgewood would be punishing if he was unable to drive the ball safely in the fairways.
Despite the erratic quality of his drives at Bellerive, Woods said his confidence in his swing was much greater than it was earlier in the season.
“I’ve become a little bit more mobile than I was the beginning of the year,” he said. “My swing has evolved and it’s gotten more consistent. I think it will continue to get that way.”
Woods said he considered this season one of the best in a career that has yielded 14 major titles.
Even without a win? One might wonder. But Woods certainly seems to be enjoying himself as much as he ever has.
“As I’ve said before, this has been a blessing,” he said. “It’s been so special to have this opportunity again. I’m certainly not taking it for granted.”