Tiger Woods returns to San Diego's Torrey Pines, the scene of 8 of his 82 victories on the PGA Tour, intent on extending one of golf’s most remarkable encore performances
Tiger Woods could have just come out of a full-body cast and he probably would be a favorite this week at the Farmers Insurance Open. Torrey Pines Golf Course is one of his happy places going back to his youth, when he was early in his journey to golf’s stratosphere.
“Once asked Tiger who’d be in his dream foursome,” journalist Robert Lusetich tweeted on Sunday. “He said it’d be a twosome. Him and Pops, at Torrey.”
Earl Woods died in 2006, a few months after his son had won the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines for the fourth time. Tiger was in the process of winning four straight years there (2005-08), as well as the 2008 U.S. Open on a very bad left leg over Rocco Mediate in a playoff.
Torrey’s South Course is the host venue, but Woods’ play seldom has gone in that direction. He will tee off Thursday in his 2020 competitive debut, presumably healthy and delighted to be oceanside in La Jolla, Calif., again. He has won the tour event seven times plus the memorable Open, with three additional top-five finishes. The only thing Woods hasn’t done at Torrey Pines is some hang gliding between nines.
A victory at age 44 this week not only would be Woods’ 83rd career PGA Tour victory, moving him past Sam Snead for the record, but would make it the third tournament he has won eight times, along with the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Snead is the only other player to have as much success at one place, having won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times, the last when he was just shy of 53 in 1965, and he remains the oldest PGA Tour winner.
Moreover, a Tiger triumph would give him a PGA Tour victory in four decades, something achieved by just Snead, Raymond Floyd and Davis Love III. If Woods needs motivation on this front, he need only look to Lee Westwood, champion of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Sunday, who at 46 has now won European Tour events in four decades.
Longevity seemed to be the career quality that Woods was going to lack. Five years ago at Torrey Pines, he withdrew on his 12th hole of the first round because of a back problem one week after shooting 82 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. That was the beginning of essentially three seasons lost to injury. The future existence of a golf game, much less its quality, was in jeopardy. When Woods underwent spinal fusion in April 2017, the procedure was a measure to relieve the debilitating condition.
What has transpired since that surgery – and inpatient treatment for issues with prescription pain medication that resulted in an arrest on a charge of driving under the influence – is a comeback that has surprised virtually everyone, including the protagonist himself.
In the earlier chapters of Woods’ career, some of his feats were unprecedented – three straight U.S. Amateur titles, four professional major-championship victories in a row from the 2000 U.S. Open through 2001 Masters – but given how good he was, never unanticipated.
Woods’ victories in the 2018 Tour Championship and the Masters and Zozo Championship last year carried a different feeling, a bonus that almost no one could have expected. His back surgery was supposed to take him to his kids’ soccer games, not to No. 6 in the world. Golf historians can debate where to consider Woods’ return among others – Harry Vardon following tuberculosis, Ben Hogan after a near-fatal auto accident, Babe Zaharias and Gene Littler from cancer – but his joy now is of a degree that only follows despair.
"These are blessed opportunities,” Woods said Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “I didn't think I would have these."
Most encores are over after a song or two. As he starts a new decade, though, Woods is challenged with continuing his. This might not be the Tigermania aroused by a young man, yet it isn’t the one-more-time glow of denouement that enveloped Jack Nicklaus circa his 1986 Masters at age 46, either. Three victories in a 14-month span re-kindled expectations, and Tiger’s competitive fire seems stoked in part by his two children, daughter Sam, 12, and son Charlie, 10, being old enough now to appreciate and share their father’s success.
Woods didn’t look sharp in the immediate months following his fifth Masters win. It certainly was understandable that he’d want to enjoy his 15th career major title (but first since the 2008 U.S. Open). He also turned out to be bothered by a left-knee problem, for which he had arthroscopic surgery late in the summer. Woods returned to action at the Zozo Championship in October, swinging and playing beautifully, the victory tying him with Snead at 82.
The last time we saw Woods on the course, he was taking apart Royal Melbourne and taking out Abraham Ancer, 3-and-2, in the leadoff singles match last month at the Presidents Cup, where the Woods-captained Americans rallied on the final day to defeat the International team. Social media was full of critiques from golf-course aficionados applauding how smartly Woods maneuvered around that Sunday on the classic design, whose creative green complexes ask hard questions of approaches, even in an era of much shorter second shots.
Torrey Pines is a different challenge, brawny and straightforward, much like the venues where Woods has won eight times, Bay Hill and Firestone. Woods isn’t as powerful as he was when he was racking up those titles, but lots of memories can make up for a few yards. When Woods was down and out, a legend limited by injury, members of the younger generation said they wished they could play against prime-time Tiger. Grateful for the opportunity and loving his work in a way in which he didn’t before, he is obliging the best he can.
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