LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | It all felt so familiar Tuesday at Torrey Pines, where a damp gray chill hung over the place with the faint scent of wood smoke from outdoor fireplaces at the nearby lodge.
Another golf year officially begins Thursday for Tiger Woods in the Farmers Insurance Open at a spot where he’s won eight of his 82 PGA Tour titles and the expectations are inflated despite Woods suggesting he feels every bit of his 44 years.
Woods went through a battery of media duties, answering questions about what he’s done since captaining the American victory in the Presidents Cup in mid-December and what he expects this year, doing a series of prearranged video spots outside while fighter jets from a nearby air base screamed overhead.
There was work to be done on the practice range where Woods is still getting comfortable with his new TaylorMade driver, which he intends to put into play Thursday. He’s never been a guy who changes clubs like he changes shirts so he’s kept what he calls his “old faithful” driver nearby in case he’s still in the “getting-to-know-each-other” phase with the new club.
The underlying theme, at least from the outside, is similar to what it was so many years before: How big a year might this be for Woods?
Two years ago, no one – including Woods – knew what to expect in his return after spinal-fusion surgery.
Last year, there was a hopeful enthusiasm based on his victory at the 2018 Tour Championship.
Now, given his 2019 Masters victory and what he did in the latter part of the year, when his swing looked as good as it has in years, the anticipation surrounding Woods is peaking again.
The question of will he win again has been replaced by where will he win his record-setting 83rd PGA Tour tournament?
Will he add to his major championship total this year and creep closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record?
Woods grew accustomed to the noise years ago and has a knack for tuning it out. He operates with his own set of expectations and while he’s already won once this season – the Zozo Championship in Japan last fall – this is a new calendar year and he took a long break from the game.
Other than a lighthearted birthday round with his son, Charlie, Woods said he essentially put the clubs away after the Presidents Cup until a few days into the new year, when he went back to work.
Listening to Woods in his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday, it was easy to get the sense he’s working his way back this week rather than arriving at Torrey Pines primed to win.
“It’s hard to put it together for all four days as you get older. It’s just harder.” – Tiger Woods
“When I was younger, I had more good days than bad days feeling-wise,” Woods said. “Now, at 44, I feel more bad days than I do good days.
“I think all of you at my age or older can relate to that. I think that’s the hardest part about being an older athlete. You see it all the time at the Masters. You see it every single year, either Fred (Couples), (Bernhard) Langer or somebody’s up there for about two or three days then they fade.
“It’s hard to put it together for all four days as you get older. It’s just harder.”
Woods has still been able to do it as his victories last year attest and the case can be made that he was the best player in the Presidents Cup. His comments might also be taken as a subtle acknowledgement that this week will be more challenging than some later this year.
Torrey Pines is a place where putting the ball in play off the tee is critical, given the thick, juicy rough off the edges of both the North and South courses. It’s also a place where length matters.
Last year, Woods averaged 296.8 yards off the tee which, had he played enough rounds to qualify for the PGA Tour rankings, would have put him in a tie for 71st in driving distance with Patrick Reed.
That’s where Woods’ game has changed the most drastcally. More than ever, he has become a tactician.
When he set the clubs aside late last year, Woods said he felt his game was in a good spot and didn’t need much work. Getting back into the competitive flow means managing his adrenaline, Woods said, more than refining his ball-striking.
Having tied Sam Snead’s record for career victories last fall, Woods knows every tournament he plays now will carry the question of whether it’s the one where he breaks the record. It’s already become a popular question – is Tiger more likely to win at Torrey Pines or Riviera or Bay Hill?
That’s a long way from two years ago when there was no certainty he would ever win again.
Woods said he doesn’t think about getting to 83. He thinks about the step-by-step process required to win a tournament.
Still the number – 83 – is immense.
“It’s a number I can’t quite get my head around,” Justin Rose said. “I was excited just to get to double digits. It’s a long way north of that.”
The pursuit of the next one begins Thursday along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, where Woods has written a sizable chunk of his professional history. Perhaps he writes another chapter this week.
Tiger Woods during the 2019 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Photo: Marc Serota, Getty Images
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