LA JOLLA — For Tiger Woods, the memories rush back in memorable and monumental torrents … of knee pain.
His 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines remains the last, heroic, gut-it-out, pre-scandal visage of Tiger before his name brand was irrevocably altered by tabloids and time.
No matter what you thought of Woods five years ago, this coming June, you could not deny him his due over a five-day stretch. His accomplishment remains among the most extraordinary feats in sport.
Returning to this place, Torrey Pines, makes Woods seem younger than a 37-year-old golfer trying to find his groove only hours after missing the weekend cut at Abu Dhabi.
Torrey Pines is a comfort zone no one else in the world knows like Woods. It is a protected wetlands sanctuary for six tour victories and his last major tournament triumph.
It still reflects a man at his apex, but also marks a career delineation point.
“Here I am just talking about it and my hands are sweating,” Woods said in the press tent two days before Thursday’s start of the Farmers Insurance Open.
Woods has a 10:30 a.m. tee time on the South Course and will be paired with Nick Watney and Rickie Fowler.
Most pre-tournament media setups involving Woods are artful dodges of obfuscation masked in layers of rudimentary divot filler.
Torrey Pines is one of the few places Woods can let down, and loose, because it returns him to the last, transcendent place he has been on a golf course.
Few, in the summer of 2008, could challenge his character, fortitude, ungodly skill and torture threshold.
No one had won a golf tournament in such a dramatic way, writhing on a knee so painful Woods winced after nearly every swing. It was more than that, of course. He needed to sink a 12-foot putt on No. 18 on the 72nd hole just to force a next-day playoff against Rocco Mediate.
Woods and Mediate were still tied after 18 playoff holes Monday, with Woods finally winning with par on what became the sudden-death seventh.
“I do look at that week often,” Woods said. “I remember several things. Number one that comes to my mind every time I look at it or see highlights of it is just the pure pain I was in. I don’t ever want to experience that again. That was a very, very difficult week.”
Woods said it took everything he had to get up in the morning.
“Then having to get out here and warm up and trying not to show you guys and any of my competitors what I was feeling,” he said.
Woods also won despite three double bogeys on his opening hole, only enhancing the victory’s scope.
“Beautiful starts,” he quipped.
Steve Williams was still on his bag in 2008 and the thought of Woods surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ 18 professional major championships seemed only a question of when.
So where is Woods’ game now?
He sat Tuesday, brimming in typical Tiger pre-tournament confidence, still stuck on 14 majors.
The triumph of 2008 was followed by reconstructive knee surgery followed by reconstructive life surgery. His career descended like a sky diver over the Torrey cliffs and he has yet to fully recoup that magical wind gust.
There were years when major-less seasons were seen as abject failures on Woods’ scale, but he has settled into a recalibrated zone where last year’s three-win season had to be seen as progress.
He climbed all the way back to No. 2 in the world, behind Rory Mcllroy, buoyed by the legitimate, if not guaranteed, prospect of future major successes.
Woods’ shield is no longer impenetrable. He missed a rare cut last week after incurring a two-stroke penalty for improperly taking relief for an embedded ball.
“I don’t recall ever having one like that, no,” Woods said.
He admitted winning on tour is getting tougher. Some of young golfers he once inspired are now chasing him down.
“Each generation, it gets more difficult,” Woods said. "…You have more guys going into the weekend with a chance to win, and they are. They can win from anyplace.”
Torrey Pines is one of those comfortable sofas — Firestone and Augusta are two others — where Woods can reasonably expect to summon the past on his very command.
His memories of San Diego are easily, and happily, recollected. Woods reminisced about coming here as a “single-digit” aged kid to watch the Andy Williams Open.
He delighted telling the story of the time he was following Tom Watson on the eighth hole. Twice, Woods said, he ended up standing next to one of Watson’s wayward shots.
Bruce Edwards, Watson’s longtime caddie, took special note of the young spectator.
“He basically yelled at me,” Woods recalled. “Saying, ‘I moved you out of here once,’ and basically moved me out of there twice.”
That was a long, long time ago, for sure, but so was 2008.
Tiger isn’t as transcendent anymore — but he now gets his PGA redraw, in the States, hoping this is the place he can still make a statement.