Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines felt like the start of any other season on the PGA Tour, except when he awoke at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and realized he had plenty of time on his hands.
Gone was the crack-of-dawn tee time in the pro-am that had belonged to him for so many years, a product of being the No. 1 player. He was 68th on the money list last year and no longer gets first pick of the best tee times.
“I get to sleep in a little bit,” Woods said. “Got up at 3:30 this morning not knowing what to do.”
He isn’t the defending champion, even though Woods hasn’t lost at Torrey Pines since 2004. Then again, he hasn’t played since 2008 because of knee surgery, followed by an imploding personal life last year.
Woods said he is looking forward to the Farmers Insurance Open, which can be interpreted so many ways.
It’s a new year, and he would just as soon forget about the last one. Woods failed to win anywhere in the world for the first time in his pro career while going through a divorce brought on by his extramarital affairs.
He also feels that he has restored a sense of balance to his life, and he’s eager to see how that will translate to golf.
“I think in order to play this game at a high level, it helps to have a clear mind,” Woods said before going out for his 11 a.m. pro-am time on the South Course. “I’ve played at the high levels before in the past without a clear mind, but it helps to be consistent. It helps having your life in balance. Certainly, my life is much more balanced than it was in the past. That’s exciting for me. I think it’s exciting for my kids, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Woods and Phil Mickelson are the top attractions, as always, even though it’s odd to promote them as No. 3 and No. 5 in the world. Mickelson’s distractions last year weren’t self-inflicted. He had to cope with arthritis the second half of the season, and now can resume his workouts and other preparations.
“I’ve been antsy to get back and play,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t finish the year the way I wanted to, and I wanted to try to make 2011 the year that I thought 2010 was going to be.”
He also expects a different look from Woods. Mickelson played with him in the final round in Chicago last year, and noticed the speed in his swing starting to return.
“I expect that he’ll be the Tiger that we’ve known for over a decade, unfortunately,” Mickelson said with a grin.
Woods said he’s fresh going into a new season for the first time in about six years, although his two-month break was not pain-free. He had a cortisone shot in his right ankle two days after the Chevron World Challenge, which he said kept him out for a week.
Even so, there wasn’t much else on his mind besides golf.
“It’s nice to have an offseason where I wasn’t in pain and recovering from something,” Woods said. “I’ve had so many darn surgeries and everything. Granted, I had a cortisone shot, but I was fine in a week. I haven’t had an offseason like this. It’s always been trying to somehow, ‘Can I get myself to start up again?’ This was nice to actually practice and build.”
Now it’s time to evaluate his game. And there’s no better to measure the progress than Torrey Pines.
His seventh win as a pro on this public course along the Pacific Bluffs was perhaps the most famous, the 2008 U.S. Open. He made a 12-foot birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate, and beat him in 19 holes the next day.
Not by coincidence, Woods will be playing with Mediate (along with Anthony Kim) the first two rounds. The PGA Tour this year is moving around some of the pairings to create story lines.
Mediate expects to see the Woods he did that day at Torrey.
“My opinion, if he gets it and starts driving his ball where he’s looking, the game is over,” Mediate said. “It doesn’t matter who is there. Call it what you want. I’ve seen it. I’ve been around it. I’ve studied it. If you put him in the fairway, as good as he putts, as good as his short game is, good luck. If he can get the ball back on the fairway, Tiger will become Tiger again.”
More than hitting fairways is making putts, and Woods had his worst year on the greens last year. He still might not have won, but he probably would have at least come close, and he didn’t do that last year until his final tournament at the Chevron World Challenge.
Woods blew a four-shot lead—the first time he had lost a lead that large— and was beaten in a playoff by U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. But what Woods recalls most about that day was being tied for the lead on the last hole and hitting an 8-iron to inside 3 feet for a birdie. He just wasn’t counting on McDowell rolling in a 20-foot birdie of his own.
“The whole year last year, golf-wise, came down to one shot, and that’s what I’m so proud of,” Woods said. “I needed to hit the 8-iron with that kind of shot, and I pulled it off. That one shot was it. That was cool.”
As for the putting?
Woods said he was too distracted to work on his short game. The divorce took some four months of his season, and practice was devoted to a swing gone awry. He tried to fix it himself before hiring swing coach Sean Foley in August.
Where he goes from here remains the mystery.
He remains at 14 majors, still four short of the record held by Jack Nicklaus. That pursuit looks a lot harder than it did a year ago. Woods did not take the bait on whether he was out to prove the cynics wrong.
“I’ve heard it before,” Woods said. “I’ve gone through stretches where I haven’t won. I’ve had it happen in my career before, and I’ve been through this before. All I have to do is keep working and stick to the game plan, just like I have in the past. I think my record kind of speaks to that.”