SAN DIEGO – Back in the day, this is over.
At the height of Tiger Woods’ powers, his name is already being engraved on the Farmers Insurance Open trophy.
There’s a white flag being hoisted over the Torrey Pines clubhouse.
Blindfolds and cigarettes are being handed out on the first tee to the rest of the field.
Back in the day, death and taxes were barely a more certain outcome than Woods winning with a 36-hole lead.
Yeah, that’s over the top, but Woods once reigned as the fiercest frontrunner the game has ever seen.
That’s worth remembering with Woods shooting a 7-under-par 65 Friday on the North Course to seize the lead halfway through this tournament. With Woods at 11-under 133, the question is if Woods remembers. The question is whether he is putting back together the game that made victory feel almost inevitable when he was out front on a weekend.
“I said earlier this week, I’m excited about this year,” Woods said. “I had a good year last year. I won three times and was in contention in a few others, and that’s a pretty good year.”
Woods dismantled the North Course, shrinking the layout with a driver that looked like it’s becoming a dangerous weapon. He hit 12 of 14 fairways, slamming one tee shot after another straight down the middle.
Though the South Course is 600 yards longer than the North Course, Woods actually hit more drivers on the North Course Friday than he did on the South a day earlier.
Caddie Joe LaCava said Woods hit 10 drivers on the South Course, 12 on the North.
“They’ve lengthened the North Course, and with the course being so wet, it kind of forces your hand,” LaCava said. “And, he’s just driving the ball really well.”
Woods used that big stick to devour the par 5s. He eagled the 18th Friday, his ninth hole of the day, to take sole possession of the lead. He birdied the other three par 5s. He hit driver and just an 8-iron onto No. 1, a 519-yard par 5.
Dominating the par 5s was always a big part of Woods’ formula, but not so much the last couple years.
A more obedient driver is bringing that back.
Woods leads the field this week in driving distance at Torrey Pines (318 yards per drive), but, more impressively, given how much he is hitting driver here, Woods is tied for fourth in driving accuracy (19/28 fairways hit). That makes him No. 1 in total driving this week.
Woods used his driver to shrink the par 4s, too. At the second hole, he hit driver and then knocked a little flip sand wedge off the flagstick to set up birdie. He nearly holed a wedge at the seventh. He looked like the same guy who has reigned so dominantly at Torrey Pines.
“I hit good shots all the way,” Woods said.
If Woods can win for the eighth time as a pro at Torrey Pines this weekend, it bodes well for a big year. A win here is typically his warning shot across the bow of the rest of the PGA Tour. In the six seasons Woods has won this event in the past, he has gone on to win a major championship in five of them, including ’08, when he won here and then won the U.S. Open when it returned nearly six months later.
When Woods has won here at year’s start, he has never failed to win at least four times overall for the year. He won eight times in ’99, five times in ’03, six times in ’05, eight times in ’06 and seven times in ’07. When he won twice here in ’08, he won four times overall, but that was in just six starts with Woods shutting down his season in June for knee surgery.
There’s still scar tissue at issue now, though, scar tissue that goes beyond the knee.
With Woods creating doubt with weekend stumbles in big events last year, with a fearless new generation eager to make its mark, that same old sense of inevitability isn’t there with Woods atop the leaderboard.
Last year, Woods held a share of the 36-hole leads at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship but didn’t even record a top-10 finish in those events. He has closed the door when leading halfway through an event just twice in his last six tries.
That’s a stark contrast from his best days.
Woods once went more than four years without failing to close the door on a 36-hole lead in a PGA Tour event. From the ’99 Memorial through the ’03 WGC-American Express Championship, Woods closed the door 18 consecutive times when holding the lead halfway through a PGA Tour event. He closed the door 12 consecutive times during a run in the same position between ’05 and ’09. He was 30/32 closing the door on 36-hole leads in that span and overall is 34/44.
Woods’ body language spoke volumes about the returning state of his confidence. A big part of that is comfort with the changes he and swing coach Sean Foley made.
“Yeah, I’ve had another year in the system of working with Sean,” Woods said. “It’s not something that you can do overnight and make changes and all of a sudden it’s great. From where I came from, to where I’m at now, it’s a big change.”
It’s a change that could make this weekend feel like the same old thing for Tiger at Torrey.