SAN DIEGO – With the Pacific Ocean behind him, Tiger Woods drew back his driver and sent it soaring across the blue sky Wednesday at Torrey Pines.
Watching from 50 yards away was Jay Monahan, the new commissioner of the PGA Tour.
“That’s a nice sight, isn’t it? Monahan said.
He wasn’t referring to the sun shining down on the rugged coastline. His eyes were fixed on Woods, in perfect balance on the 17th tee of the North Course.
This will be the ninth time that Woods returns to the PGA Tour following a lengthy layoff – more times than all but three players at Torrey Pines have PGA Tour victories – and this one brings as much curiosity as excitement at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Not even Woods knows what to expect.
“We all know I haven’t played a full schedule in a very long time, so this is an unknown,” Woods said. “I’ve been away from it for so long. I’ve played one tournament in that 15-month span and I haven’t played a full-field event. I haven’t got into the rhythm of playing weeks on end in a season.”
Woods last played a PGA Tour event at the Wyndham Championship in August 2015 in a last-minute effort to qualify for the tour’s postseason. He tied for 10th, and then had two more back surgeries a few months apart that sent him to the sidelines for an entire season.
He returned at his Hero World Challenge in early December, an unofficial event with an 18-man field and no cut. Woods finished 15th, though it was considered a success because of his 24 birdies, no issues with his back and no stress on his swing.
This one counts, and it won’t be long before Woods is measured against the rest of the field.
He will play the opening two rounds with Jason Day (No. 1 in the world) and Dustin Johnson (PGA Tour player of the year). Both are among the biggest hitters in golf, playing a style that Woods once had to dominate the sport.
That brought the biggest smile to his face.
“That’s two guys that are the best in the world and they’re up there and playing some unbelievable golf and they’re good friends of mine,” Woods said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better pairing. … Those guys will bomb it out there. That’s fine. I’ll just play my game and the name of the game is low score. It’s not a long drive contest.”
Woods has never waited this long to return to a full field of PGA Tour competition. This is twice as long as he sat out after reconstructive surgery on his left knee following his 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines.
That was one of his eight pro victories on the public course along the Pacific bluffs. Woods has performed better at Torrey than any other PGA Tour course, and he’s hopeful some of those good vibes will return.
He played the pro-am Wednesday on the North Course in the early morning chill of 50-degree weather at sea level. Even so, the gallery was as large as it was for tournament days at the first three PGA Tour events this year.
“I think everyone would like to see him perform at a very high level,” Monahan said. “But when we look at Tiger, you’ve got to look at someone who’s going to have a huge presence in the game for a long, long time to come. The longer he’s playing alongside the best players in the world and competing at the highest level, I think that’s certainly great for the PGA Tour and certainly great for our sport.”
Woods is not wasting any time in showing that his body can handle travel and playing. Torrey Pines is the first of four tournaments in a five-week stretch that will take him to Dubai next week, and then the Genesis Open in Los Angeles and the Honda Classic in South Florida in consecutive weeks.
But he also wants to be patient, especially over the next few days with Johnson and Day at his side.
“You always want to play against and with the best players,” Woods said. “I’m trying to remind myself: `Hey, I haven’t played in a while. Hey, it’s just the first two days and get yourself in contention, build your way up.’ It’s not Sunday. I’ve got a long way to go to get to that point where I have a chance to win this event.”
The rough is thick from recent rain. Woods said he hasn’t played in high rough since the PGA Championship in 2015 at Whistling Straits, where he missed the cut with rounds of 75-73. That was his second-to-last event before he stepped away.
Now, he can only hope this is the start of what would be his first injury-free season since 2013. Woods won five times that year, including a four-shot victory at Torrey Pines. That was only four years ago. It seems longer.
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