So, the winner of the Tiger Woods sweepstakes was announced Thursday, with the Farmers Insurance Open getting the nod as Woods returns to competitive golf after his fourth back surgery.
Yes, I’m ignoring the hit-and-giggle event in the Bahamas last month, with its limited 18-player field. The Jan. 25-28 FIO at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., will be Woods’ first official start in nearly a year.
I was surprised at how good Woods looked at the Hero World Challenge in early December. It was his first public play since a first-round 77 at Dubai on Feb. 2 and subsequent withdrawal. That preceded a fourth back surgery in April, a DUI arrest in August and a reckless-driving plea in October. When I heard that Woods announced on Twitter that he would return at Torrey Pines and then two weeks later go to Riviera for the Genesis Open, I had to shake my head and wonder, What is he thinking?
Many golf observers will recall that Woods won eight times at Torrey: seven during the PGA Tour’s annual West Coast Swing and the thrilling 91-hole marathon in the 2008 U.S. Open, his last major championship.
So, why shouldn’t he return to Torrey Pines? Simply, it’s too difficult of a place to start the season after a year on the bench.
The North and South courses, which are used for the first two rounds, are brutal. Add the quality of the field, and it’s like leading a lamb to the slaughter.
Since 2013, the last time Woods won at the San Diego-area muni, he has finished T-80, WD and MC. He has not broken par since a second-round 71 in 2014.
When Woods won in ’13, the North played 7,052 yards and the South, where the final two rounds are held, was 7,698 yards.
Last year, the South stayed the same length, but the North was stretched to 7,258 yards. At basically sea level, with cool and heavy air from the Pacific Ocean, the conditions impede distance.
I’m no back surgeon, but if I were, I would advise Woods to find a better place to start – perhaps Honolulu or Palm Springs, where the weather generally is very warm and scoring is easier. Those are places where Woods could build confidence in his game, rather than having to jump into the lions’ den near San Diego.
Of course, Woods never has played at either site, and Palm Springs features three rounds of pro-am play, which Woods doesn’t like. The European Tour’s Desert Swing in the Middle East also would offer warm, arid conditions and familiar venues for Woods.
Torrey Pines certainly will help remind Woods of eight of his 79 PGA Tour victories and cloud the fact that he hasn’t won in 4½ years and dropped to No. 656 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Yet a return to Riviera, where he has enjoyed no measurable success in 11 appearances, makes no sense.
Two runners-up, in 1998 and 1999, are all that Woods can take from an event in which he hasn’t played since withdrawing after a second-round 74 in 2006. Riviera and its tricky Kikuyu grass can make for difficult play outside of the fairway.
If you’re a Woods supporter, you likely are shaking your head in disagreement. With his history at Torrey Pines and his affection for Los Angeles, his hometown, Woods will find a way to succeed, you might be thinking.
Those backers could be right, but why take the chance?
As a teen, Woods sprained his left wrist hitting from heavy rough at Shinnecock Hills during the 1995 U.S. Open, prompting his withdrawal. The rough at Torrey Pines and Riviera can be especially penal, but the non-existent rough in Palm Springs is very hospitable.
Another injury and Woods might as well spend his time designing courses instead of playing on them for the rest of his career.
He needs to be smart, and that means not starting at Torrey Pines.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli