SAN DIEGO – Tiger’s back at Torrey. Just like old times.
Someone asked Woods Wednesday to take a “snapshot” of his favorite moments at this SoCal gem. His favorite was obvious – that U.S. Open on a broken leg was pretty memorable – but the larger point was that there were so many highlights to choose from, whether it was his Junior Worlds title at 15 or the seven Farmers victories. Based on earnings at this event alone ($8.2 million), he’d rank inside the top 200 on the Tour’s all-time money list.
But when it comes to Tiger, there remains a temptation for fans, media and players to look back, not forward. He tends to evokes nostalgia because his future is so uncertain.
His health. His new (old) swing. His competition. His new normal.
This week’s Farmers Insurance Open won’t provide any definitive answers – golf doesn’t lend itself to instant analysis, even in the Internet age – but it’s a start. As he gears up for the Masters, Woods will play four of the next five weeks, traveling from California to Dubai, then back to California and then on to Florida. It’s an ambitious stretch.
“I feel like I’m strong enough to be able to handle the workload,” he said earlier this week, “but I’ve still got to go out there and do it. So feeling good about it and doing it are two totally different things.”
Translation: Not even Woods knows how this latest comeback will go. But at least he’s willing to try.
There are a few questions to consider on the eve of his 2017 debut:
How will his back hold up?
After three surgeries, he can’t practice and beat balls like he used to; his 41-year-old body can’t take the pounding.
Temperatures were in the 40s when he began his 6:40 a.m. pro-am round. He had an abbreviated warmup and made a brief pit stop at the practice putting green. He wore rain pants and four layers and still looked like a skier without a parka. He kept moving, even shuffling in position, to keep his back from tightening up.
Woods played all four rounds in the Bahamas without setbacks, but it remains to be seen how his body will respond to international travel, pre- and post-round practice, and the potential for 16 competitive rounds when he’s played only four in the past 17 months.
How is his swing?
Woods is essentially going at it alone, trying to replicate old feelings and positions. Many point to him taking ownership of his swing as a positive sign.
The big miss to the right is gone, but Woods is still susceptible to the pull-hook off the tee. (He hit a few snipes in the pro-am.) Those who specialize in swing analysis point to compensations in his swing to take pressure off his back.
Moving forward, will he revert to old habits or swing within his body constraints?
Can Woods play small-ball?
Woods isn’t short off the tee – he averaged 300 yards in 2015, his last full season – but he’s nowhere near the longest anymore. That’ll be reinforced over his first two rounds at Torrey Pines, where he’ll be grouped with the titanium-denting duo of Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.
Woods insisted Wednesday that he won’t get tempted into a long-drive contest – “I’ll just play my game, and the name of the game is low score” – but ego and adrenaline are powerful motivators.
The strength of Woods’ game at the Bahamas, and again Wednesday in the pro-am, was his iron play. To capitalize on that, he’ll need to play out of the fairway on Torrey South, with its wickedly long rough.
Can he win this year?
There are so many question marks about the state of his game … and the competition has never been stronger or deeper … so allow Woods to answer this one himself:
“I don’t know. I haven’t played a full schedule in a very long time, so this is an unknown.”
Yeah, Tiger’s back at Torrey, all right. Only this time, it feels like the start of something new.