SAN DIEGO – One year later, Tiger Woods looked five years younger.
There are intangibles that are hard to measure, though at this stage in his return, they mean more than the traditional measure of a golfer.
Woods was walking just as tall at the end of the week as when he arrived at Torrey Pines for the Farmers Insurance Open, and not just because he played four rounds on the PGA Tour for the first time in 29 months.
It’s not often that Woods says words like “pleased” and “positive” after a tie for 23rd.
But it would be hard to argue with him.
This did not look like the previous five comebacks from when he had the first of four back surgeries a week before the 2014 Masters. There was no sense of how long he would last, rather how long it would take for him to get sharper.
“Ninety holes over five days in a row … I know he did that in the Bahamas, but those were 3 1/2 hours, and now we’re playing five-hour rounds,” caddie Joe LaCava said. “That makes a difference because you’re adding about seven, eight hours on your feet, playing golf, thinking about what to hit, and hitting shots. So I’m glad he got through that. I’m not saying health isn’t going to be an issue, but it certainly looks better than it has.”
The only concern was off the tee. Woods hit 17 out of 56 fairways for the week, tied for last among the 77 players who made the cut. He hit only three fairways in each of the final three rounds, and his drive on the par-5 10th hole on the North Course was 65 yards left of the edge of the fairway.
But then, that might have worked in his favor.
How else would he get a sense that his back could handle so many violent swings required to get him out of that mess?
“Some of the shots I had to hit out of the rough, out of the trees, shaping them both ways, and a few times I had to jack up the speed,” Woods said after the final round. “And had no issues at all.”
The issue was being there in the first place, but there’s time.
Woods headed home for two weeks before he comes back out to California for the Genesis Open at Riviera, a course where he made his PGA Tour debut at age 16 in 1992 but last played in 2006. He’s likely to play the Honda Classic a week later, and then have two weeks off before the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
That might be it before the Masters. Woods is not in the two World Golf Championships in March. He is contemplating the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook, but that would mean four tournaments in five weeks, and that might be too much too soon.
If there was curiosity about his performance at Torrey Pines, there is even more about how he plays Riviera.
“We can see the swing is out of sync. He can feel it’s out of sync,” six-time major winner Nick Faldo said before the final round. “I’m thinking he’s going to go away for two weeks and it will be very interesting if he can put his finger on the things he needs to work on.”
Keeping score should be easy in golf, except when it comes to this version of Woods.
There is a call for patience because he has played so little tournament golf and even less with a semblance of good health. But at some point, he should be measured against the field. He should be measured not so much by winning, but by having a chance.
Asked what he thought of Woods’ return, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange took the right path.
“It’s not for me to pass judgment on four rounds of golf,” he said Tuesday. “I’m giving him most of the year, and then we’ll revisit.”
In the meantime, his return was as advertised.
Tournament officials issued a notice a few hours after Woods two-putted for birdie from 75 feet to make the cut on the number. It said public parking for Saturday was sold out.
The gallery for the final group on Saturday – which included Jon Rahm, who had a chance at reaching No. 1 in the world – was typical of the last two years, mainly because the thousands of additional fans were with Woods. From behind the third green, one could see across the gorge to the 14th hole, where fans stood shoulder to shoulder from the tee to the corporate box next to the green.
On Sunday, Woods worked his way through the gallery behind the eighth green, across the 18th fairway and then through another throng to get to his final hole. Everyone wanted a glimpse of him. Right after Woods walked by, one woman broke into a big smile and said to her friend, “Those 45 minutes were so worth it.”
There is no greater appeal in golf than Woods, especially when it looks as though he might be around a while.
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