Back and to the Future


Farmers Insurance OpenSAN DIEGO – When history is your litmus test and making records, not chasing them, is your job description, nostalgia can be an occupational hazard, which is why for much of his storied and recently stormy career Tiger Woods has avoided gratuitous trips down memory lane like a Royal Liverpool pot bunker.

There would be time for that kind of self-indulgence when the legacy was written.

But that kind of thinking was before things got sideways on a dark Isleworth street in late 2009. Before the once Teflon kid was tarnished by sordid controversy. Before a singularly focused man found out that what happens outside the ropes often has more impact on happiness than anything that transpires within its manicured confines.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods hopes to hold aloft another trophy at Torrey Pines. (Getty Images)
Pre-Nov. 25 Woods’ return to Torrey Pines, site of his last major triumph and watershed moment in a career littered with them, would not have rated much of a flashback. Pre-Nov. 25 Woods would have acknowledged the past, his one-legged OT victory at the 2008 U.S. Open over funnyman Rocco Mediate, and quickly moved on. This week, he probably would have stressed, was about the Farmers Insurance Open and another “W.”

But times, and tendencies, have changed.

Numerous times on Wednesday during his first media meet-and-greet of 2011 Woods referred to having “balance” in his life, and sometimes finding that kind of clarity requires an examination of the past.

When the subject inevitably turned to his thoughts on his first competitive trip back to Torrey Pines since 2008 – he participated in a Buick “caddie” ad campaign following the U.S. Open – something within a rested and relaxed Woods ignited.

“I haven’t watched much of Sunday or Monday (from the ’08 Open), but I do watch Saturday,” he smiled. “Saturday turned it all around.”

To recap, Saturday was indeed Moving Day at the ’08 Open for Woods. He posted a back-nine 33 highlighted by a chip-in birdie at the 17th and eagle at the 18th to move into the lead.

But, at least for Woods, Saturday was about more than just getting back into the game. It was about perseverance against all physical odds.

“Saturday probably hurt more than any other day,” Woods said referring to his broken leg. “It was stupid to play and go through that much pain . . . but I have a little bit of a hard-headed side.”

The exchange was remarkable only because it came from a man who has made his competitive “bones” in the moment. To revisit that painfully historic day with such clarity and conviction is musings of the best kind.

Retrospect can be liberating, and Tiger 2.0 is cherry picking the best from his past. Makes sense, really. At no other time in his Hall-of-Fame career has Woods needed more positive reinforcement.

By all accounts Woods’ swing, retooled to the extreme under the eye of new swing coach Sean Foley, is sound. What is not so certain is his putting and confidence, and what better way to deal with the demons that will inevitably crop up the next time he finds himself in a Sunday fray? Been there, done that.

One could fit a Rees Jones par 5 in the space between Woods’ last competitive trip to Torrey and this week. Prior to the ’08 Open he was fresh off his sixth victory on the SoCal muni, he was the runaway favorite and nearly incapacitated by a broken leg.

Despite a cortisone shot in December for an ailing right ankle, Woods set off on Wednesday in the pro-am healthy for the first time in six years and fresh from his first true off-season in at least that long.

“It’s nice to have an off-season where I wasn’t in pain,” he admitted.

Following last year’s largely self-induced turmoil it was also nice to have some peace. Divorce completed, life returning to at least a level of normalcy and a clear direction both professionally and personally.

“I went down a path I shouldn’t have gone, now my life is in balance,” he said.

And much of that balance was discovered via retrospection. Even when asked about the current state of his game, Woods stepped back in time to last month’s Chevron World Challenge where he lost to Graeme McDowell in a playoff.

“The whole year last year golf-wise came down to one golf shot, and that's what I'm so proud of,” said Woods, referring to his approach shot to the 72nd hole at Sherwood Country Club for birdie. “All the changes I made in my swing, I needed it the most. I needed to hit the 8-iron with that kind of shot, and I pulled it off. So under the most intense pressure I hit the shot I needed to hit when I needed to hit it.”

For those who think Woods is putting too much importance on one shot, consider the real-time reaction from Hunter Mahan, who watched Woods quietly from the scoring area at Sherwood.

“This means a lot to him,” Mahan correctly predicted at the time. “The way he’s practicing his swing, he really wants this.”

To be more precise, Woods really needed the approach that rolled to 3 feet. Much like he needs the memories from the ’08 Open this week. They are valuable reminders that he’s been here, done that.