Tiger Woods Opens Season With High Expectations And A Solid Start
SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Tiger Woods was ranked No. 647 in the world when he arrived at Torrey Pines Golf Course. He was coming off career-threatening spinal-fusion surgery, had not won on tour in almost five years and was happy just to be playing after another long layoff.
The operation to fuse two vertebrae in his lower back, he said this week, was “the last-ditch effort to give me quality of life” even if it did not allow him to compete at the highest level of professional golf again. That is why he had low expectations heading into 2018 and said he was “pleased” to make the cut and finish tied for 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open.
A year later, much has changed, including Woods’s expectations. He made his season debut Thursday, again at Torrey Pines, but this time coming off a season of steady progress that culminated in his September victory at the Tour Championship in Atlanta — his 80th PGA Tour title, but his first since 2013. He had also climbed to No. 13 in the world rankings.
Woods shot a two-under-par 70 in the opening round on the South Course, putting him eight shots behind the leader, Jon Rahm, in a tie for 53rd, but he seemed anything but discouraged. He has winning on his mind again.
“This year, it’s totally different,” he said. “I have a great understanding of what I can and can’t do. There’s not the uncertainty that I had going into the year last year, after what I did at the end of last year. I know what I’m feeling, so now it’s about finishing a littler better and winning some events.”
Woods has won eight titles at Torrey Pines as a pro — including the 2008 United States Open — and one Junior World Championships title as an amateur. It will, however, be a tall order to catch the leaders in a field featuring 12 of the world’s top 20 players — especially after Rahm, the world No. 7 and the 2017 tournament champion, set a record for the renovated North Course with a 62. One shot back is the world No. 1, Justin Rose, who also played the North Course.
Woods said he knew what that meant as he headed to that course for the second round on Friday. “That forces me to shoot a low one, because everybody on the North went low today,” he said.
Everyone in the 156-player field plays one round on the South Course and one on the North before the 36-hole cut is established. The cut last year was one under par, the score Woods had in advancing to weekend play for the first time since 2015.
On Thursday, Woods made five birdies and three bogeys, with three of his birdies coming on par 5s: Nos. 6 (9-foot putt), 9 (15-footer) and 18 (12-footer). He drove the ball well until midway through the back nine, when he missed three consecutive tee shots to the right. He managed to save par from the right rough on the 14th and 15th holes, but he failed get up and down from a greenside bunker on the par-3 16th and made bogey.
“Over all, it was a pretty solid day,” he said. “I felt I drove it pretty well. Even though I missed a few fairways, they were controllable. My feel was a little off, but that should get better.”
His best shot of the day was a towering 6-iron on the 215-yard, par-3 11th hole that rolled to a stop 3 feet from the cup. He made the birdie putt to reach two under, but not until he had summoned a rules official to explain that he had accidentally moved his ball while addressing it on the green.
“I was about to build my stance, and the ball moved,” he said. “So I had to move it back to where it originally was.”
After his win in the Tour Championship, Woods had played competitively only three times — in the Ryder Cup in Paris, where he went 0-4 and was admittedly fatigued after playing seven events in nine weeks; a Thanksgiving weekend exhibition match in Las Vegas against Phil Mickelson; and his annual charity tournament in the Bahamas the first week of December.
He said he had used the six weeks off before the Farmers to spend “a lot of time in the gym, trying to get stronger,” and to relax, often free-diving and spearfishing near his home in Florida — hobbies that he said he had missed while dealing with chronic back problems in recent years.
“Last year, toward the end of the season, I got really tired because I didn’t expect to play that much golf, and I didn’t train for it,” he said. “But now I feel like my legs are where they need to be. That’s why I’ve been so diligent about training. But there are days when I just don’t practice and I don’t train. That’s probably been one of the lessons I’ve learned through all of this is there are days where I just have to shut it down and just not do anything and just relax.”