SAN DIEGO – It’s been 955 days since Tiger Woods grimaced his way to immortality at the 2008 U.S. Open, but it may as well have been 955 years as the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open got under way against a backdrop of cobalt blue skies and a drastically changed reality.
To memorialize – or capitalize, you pick – Woods’ competitive return to Torrey Pines, the PGA Tour contrived a pairing with Rocco Mediate, the everyman who took Woods to extra frames in 2008. But that pairing, and the idyllic ocean views, marked the extent of the similarities between 2008 and Thursday’s opening round.
In 955 days, the world has suffered through recession and early recovery. So has Woods. Since that historic Monday Woods’ world ranking has changed, twice, as has the world order, with a dramatic shift to Europe.
In 2008 Phil Mickelson played with two drivers. On Thursday he needed just one big stick to post a 67, which matched his best round on the South Course since it was redesigned in 2001.
Three years ago the North Course was a practice tee and media center. On Thursday it had been converted to pinched driving areas with unmercifully deep rough, which Woods called the hardest on Tour to hit.
During the SoCal Open, the 14th hole on the South Course played as a drivable par 4. On Thursday, it was where Nathan Green drove his ball, and his round, into the rough, the bunker and three-putted his way to a double bogey-6.
In 2008 Mediate was the lovable antagonist, pushing a hobbled Woods to extra holes on Monday and then some. On Thursday he was just lovable, struggling to a first-round 71
During the ’08 Open, the North’s ninth green was a chipping area for participants. On Thursday Woods chipped his third shot on the North’s ninth, his last hole of the day, to 6 feet only to miss the birdie attempt, a common theme on a day he needed 30 putts.
In 2008 North Torrey Pines Road fronting the seaside muni was a congested mess. On Thursday . . . well some things never change.
On Saturday at the ’08 Open famed architect Rees Jones, who nip/tucked Torrey Pines into shape for the national championship, was high-fiving members of the media following Woods’ eagle on the 18th hole to take the third-round lead. On Thursday someone named Matt Jones made birdie on the South’s 18th and high-fived no one.
In 2008 Westwood missed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that would have earned him a spot in Monday’s playoff with Woods and Mediate. On Thursday the Tour was missing the world No. 1, who first turned down membership and then an invitation into the circuit’s marquee event.
During the ’08 Open, which was played exclusively on the South Course, Woods played the par 5s in 9-under (not counting the playoff). On Thursday he failed to birdie or eagle any of the theoretical three-shot holes.
After each round in ’08, Woods quickly retreated to his hotel to ice his broken left leg. On Thursday, he retired to Torrey’s practice putting green to work on a cold putter. “I kept leaving myself above the hole and these greens are bouncy enough you can’t do that,” Woods said.
In ’08 Chris Kirk, who finished last among the players who made the cut, watched Woods’ finish on Saturday and Sunday from his room in the Hilton adjacent the South Course’s 18th hole. “I was hearing the roars before they would show it on TV and every time I was like, no way,” Kirk said. On Thursday Kirk played two groups behind Woods, birdied two of the four par 5s and clipped the world No. 3 by three strokes.
During the Monday playoff in 2008 Woods and Mediate combined for a best-ball score of 7-under. On Thursday their best-ball score was 6-under on the easier North Course.
But most of all, expectations have shifted for Woods and for golf. At the time he held a 9.229-point lead in the world ranking, a sum that seemed insurmountable, and seemed destined to overtake Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 majors. Today he trails Westwood by 1.5 points in the ranking and hasn’t won a major since Torrey Pines. In fact, he hasn’t won anywhere in the world since the 2009 Australian Masters.
So if he seemed overly pleased with his opening 69 on the North Thursday consider how much reality has changed since June 2008. On Wednesday Woods said of his swing change, “I’ve been here before.”
And that’s certainly true, but on Thursday, some 955 days adrift from his quintessential career victory, things have never felt so strangely different.