By Scott Cacciola
Tiger Woods was clad in his hallmark red for the final round at the Farmers Insurance Open last month when he took a compact swipe at his 141-yard approach shot on the second hole. The ball found the green and took two short hops before it bounced in and out of the cup, leaving him with a short putt for birdie.
It was a near miss that delighted the massive crowd that had formed around the green. But from his position on the fairway, Woods wore an impassive expression. He neither smiled nor scowled. He just seemed to be going about his familiar business at Torrey Pines Golf Course, a tract in San Diego that he knew well.
Woods did not win the tournament — he finished in a six-way tie for ninth place — but he was in contention throughout, and there was no question that he was the center of attention. Fans surrounded him on every tee box and green. They screamed his name and begged for autographs. One couple even showed up for his final round in his-and-hers tiger costumes.
Fan hysterics have been a staple at his tournament appearances for decades, but they are now coming during a renaissance of sorts, as Woods, 44, looks to build on the momentum he has accrued since winning the Masters last season.
A keen student of golf history, Woods knows what is out there for him to achieve this weekend at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles — a tournament that his foundation is hosting. A victory at Riviera would push him past Sam Snead for sole ownership of the record for career wins on the PGA Tour, with 83.
Woods won tournament No. 82 in October at the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan, a stunning result after he took a two-month hiatus following knee surgery. He went on to captain the United States to a Presidents Cup victory in mid-December with more brilliant play.
The twist is that Woods has never won at Riviera, which also happens to be the course where he played in his first professional tournament at age 16.
“I’ve played in a number of events over the years, and for me not to win an event that means so much to me in my hometown — I just haven’t done well here,” Woods said Tuesday at a news conference. “Hopefully, I can put it together this week, and we’ll have a great conversation on Sunday.”
Woods said that after the Presidents Cup, he went a couple of weeks without touching a club until his 44th birthday on Dec. 30, when he played a round with his son, Charlie. Between his Masters win in April and his most recent victories, Woods had sought to manage the rigors of his Tour schedule, given his recovery from four back surgeries, the most recent of which was a spinal fusion he underwent in 2017.
Woods pulled out of the FedEx Cup playoff opener with an oblique muscle strain, and admitted that back soreness limited him as he prepared before a disappointing finish at the BMW Championship in August.
“I was a little bit fried physically, mentally, emotionally,” Woods recalled last month.
But in the runup to his appearance at the Farmers Open in January, Woods returned to his familiar regimen of working his way through his bag, club by club. He practiced with a new driver. He also began using a new ball. Coming off the win in Japan and his triumph at the Presidents Cup, Woods was still tinkering with his equipment and his mechanics, summoning the motivation to compete again.
At Torrey Pines, Woods returned to the site of one of his greatest feats — his victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, a tournament he won while hobbling around with two stress fractures in his left tibia and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He has been dealing with various injuries ever since.
Before his opening round last month, Woods was asked at a news conference about being paired with Collin Morikawa, 23, which was notable mostly because it was the first time Woods would be playing alongside someone who had been born after Woods turned pro.
“It means I’ve been out here a while,” Woods said.
He reflected on the physical toll. When he was younger, he said, he had more good days than bad days. Now, the bad days outnumber the good ones. It takes him longer to recover, he said, which does not make him unique among ageing golfers. But while anyone can have a solid round or two, sustaining that high level of play is the challenge.
“It’s hard to put it together for all four days as you get older,” Woods said. “It’s just harder.”
Woods acknowledged the “missed opportunities” that have resulted from various layoffs over the course of his career, but he does not dwell on them, he said. In fact, he said he was “blessed” that he was still competing. Against the odds, he has unearthed new opportunities.
“I didn’t think I would have these,” he said.
Brandel Chamblee, an analyst for the Golf Channel and a former tour pro, said in a telephone interview that he saw no signs that Woods was suffering last month at Torrey Pines.
“The evidence would be a short swing, a quick transition, a wince here or there at a golf course where he so obviously showed the full extent of his injuries and his pain,” Chamblee said, referring to Woods’ win at the 2008 U.S. Open. “But it looks like he’s playing with freedom. His golf swing is longer than it’s ever been, and it’s certainly never been this fluid.”
Woods had certain shots that could have caused problems, Chamblee said. During the second round, for example, Woods had to take a whack out of the bunker on No. 12. The following day, he found the thick rough on No. 13. But he seemed unbothered by it all — including brisk conditions and some fog that delayed the start of his third round.
“Warming up in the cold and the fog, and having to stop and start, stop and start,” Chamblee said. “These things are not good for a bad back.”
But Woods survived. And in Los Angeles, he has a fresh opportunity to make more history, by winning on a course where he has never won. After all these years, the show goes on.
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