From chopping out of the high rough, to testing his mettle in tournament golf, to seeing how his surgically repaired back holds up playing four of the next five PGA Tour events, Tiger Woods is tackling the unknown head-on as he restarts his career after a 17-month layoff.
This much the 41-year-old Woods does know.
“I miss trying to beat these guys,” he said with a smile. “I really do.”
Of course, Woods used to be the guy. He still might cast the largest shadow this week at Torrey Pines even as a low man on the totem pole, both in a star-studded Farmers Insurance Open field and especially in his initial threesome Thursday on the South Course.
There’s Jason Day, the current No. 1 golfer in the world. There’s No. 3 Dustin Johnson. Then there’s Woods, the current World No. 663, looking to recapture even just a sliver of past glory as the top golfer in the world a record 683 weeks.
Ready, set, go, right?
“You know, that’s two guys that are the best in the world and they’re … playing some unbelievable golf and they’re good friends of mine,” Woods said after finishing Wednesday’s pro-am round. “I couldn’t have asked for a better pairing.”
As far as the tour is concerned, Woods’ return is icing on the cake as the NFL’s bye week ahead of the Super Bowl leaves the spotlight squarely on golf with some of the PGA Tour’s biggest draws getting together for the first time this season.
In a field that includes nine of the top 25 golfers in the world, No. 6 Hideki Matsuyama has already pocketed $3.13 million through four events, No. 14 Rickie Fowler is making his first start of the year and No. 22 Phil Mickelson is making just his second start since undergoing two off-season hernia procedures. Other early top-10 placers in FedEx Cup standings in the Farmers field include Pat Perez (3), Brendan Steele (4), Mackenzie Hughes (5), Hudson Swafford (6), Ron Pampling (7) and Adam Hadwin (10), the most recent of the eight players to shoot 59 or better on tour.
The 29-year-old Hadwin etched his place in golf history Saturday at La Quinta’s CareerBuilder Challenge, just nine days after 23-year-old Justin Thomas’ 15-foot eagle putt secured an 11-under-59 at the Sony Open.
Yet it’s Tiger who is the talk of Torrey Pines.
“I think Tiger’s return, I think the impact is felt in so many ways,” new PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan said, “from simply walking around and seeing the energy in the crowds to seeing the energy in the coverage leading into the tournament, not just here in San Diego, but through the country and the world.
“I think that there’s great anticipation.”
Because his 79 wins on tour are more than anyone but Sam Snead (82). Because he hasn’t actually won since August 2013. Because he bagged more birdies than anyone else at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in December, hinting at his potential even as he carded the highest score in the limited-field event.
“It’s hard to remember when I was this excited because I haven’t played in a few years,” Woods said. “It’s been a few seasons since I was in this position. So I’m looking forward to … playing and trying to keep improving and getting my game better, more consistent [and] rounding into form.”
Woods looked it at times as he walked the renovated North Course for the first time Wednesday, his gallery’s buzzing growing to a roar each time a drive found the fairway, an approach shot settled onto a green or putt dropped into a cup.
He tossed a signed glove to 9-year-old junior golfer Ryan Johnson, who’d urged his mother to excuse him from school and make the trek from Scottsdale, Ariz., to witness Woods’ return to tournament golf. He offered just the right read ahead of amateur Kenneth Bentley’s par putt on the 18th. Then he continued to sign for fans after walking off the last green to a raucous ovation.
At a locale at which Woods has won eight times as a pro and once as a junior, the hope is Woods’ return is just revving up.
“I think he’s excited, obviously,” Day said. “Who wouldn’t be excited after 17 months off? That’s a long time. I know he’s very motivated to come out and play well. Obviously, he plays well here. … So we’ve been talking back and forth, a little bit of chirping here and there, but both of us are motivated.”
Then again, Woods seems to understand his limitations after two back surgeries that left many wondering if he’d even play again. The Woods returning this week simply isn’t the Woods that Day and Johnson grew up idolizing.
“Oh hell no; I can’t carry the ball 320 yards out here on this vista stuff,” Woods said about trying to keep up with the No. 1 and No. 3 players in the world on Thursday and Friday. “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.”
He added: “You always want to play against and with the best players. … I’m trying to remind myself, hey, I haven’t played in a while; hey, it’s just the first two days. 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 … but it’s nice to start off with a pair like that.”
Follow Jeff Sanders on Twitter @sdutSanders