It’s been 10 years since his last victory in a major championship. He has played four rounds in a PGA Tour event only once in the last 2 1/2 years, has undergone four back surgeries since 2014 and at times has wondered whether his body would allow him to play competitive golf again.
Now, the new Tiger Woods is back on tour. For how long and at what level, no one knows. But the evolution of the one-time greatest golfer in the world has him optimistic — or at least hopeful — that at some point he can get back into the winner’s circle for the first time since 2013.
“I’d eventually like to win tournaments,” he said Tuesday at Riviera Country Club, where he will headline a strong field in the Genesis Open that begins Thursday. It is his second tournament of the year, a second step toward contention.
“I’m trying to get through that process, get to that point.”
Woods had only one expectation — to win — every time he competed before his ailing back began flaring up several years ago. Three weeks ago in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, he was happy to make the cut, happy to finish tied for 23rd, happy with a short game reminiscent of the one so dominant during the record 683 weeks he held the No. 1 ranking in the world.
But his game off the tee was miserable, “gross” by his own candid description. He hit only 17 of 56 fairways, worst in the field of those who made the cut. He’s worked on that aspect since, switched the shaft in his driver to a more “stout” one that he used in his final event of 2015.
“I’m making small changes in my posture and my game and my swing because I’m starting to understand my body a little bit more,” he said. “I’ve been away from the game for a very long time. ... So I’ve got a lot of room for improvement and a long way to go.”
During Woods’ hiatus, he emerged in an unaccustomed role, as an advisor and mentor dispensing his experience as an assistant captain with the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2016 and Presidents Cup team last year. By all accounts he was as intensely involved as he had been as a player, but much more intimate and approachable, particularly to younger players.
"It was awesome,” said Jordan Spieth, a player on both of those teams and part of a smaller group that worked closely with Woods. “To have his mentorship was phenomenal. You knew he wanted to be out there playing, but you couldn’t tell by the way he was talking and interacting with us.”
Woods, 42, is paired with close friends Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy in the first two rounds. He frequently plays with Thomas outside of tournaments and enjoys the back-and-forth ribbing with both of them on the course. Actual tournament competition might be different.
“Hey, I’m trying to win a tournament,” Woods said. “I’m sure they’ll feel the same way, but it’s winning time.”
Still, many players have seen a more engaging Woods during competition as well.
“In his pinnacle, it would have been advantageous for other players for him to be sharing insights, but he didn’t want to do that,” Spieth said. “That might hurt him, so as a competitor, you can’t blame him. It’s how he went about his business.
“But the last four or five years, whenever I’ve played with him, there’s been a lot of chitchat. It’s been really cool. I think he’s embraced where he’s at in life and is really happy about it.
“He wants the young guys to win majors, to grow the game even half as much as he grew it singlehandedly."
Woods has not played in this tournament since 2006. It’s one of the few events on tour he has never won.
“I love the golf course,” said Woods, who grew up in Southern California and played in the tournament as a 16-year-old amateur. “I love the layout, it fits my eye, and I play awful. It’s just one of those weird things."
This week’s field is formidable. In addition to Thomas, who won five times last season, and McIlroy, who has won four majors, Dustin Johnson will be back to defend the title that made him the world’s No. 1 golfer a year ago, a distinction he’s held on to.
Spieth, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, who with a second-place finish last week at Pebble Beach is beginning to show the form that led to 42 tour victories, are some of the other notables.
Still, the safe bet is that once the galleries begin forming Thursday morning, the big crowds will mass around the holes where McIlroy and Thomas are accompanying Woods.
"There’s so much more interest when he’s playing,” said Matt Kuchar, a seven-time tour winner. “He’s unique in the game of golf.
“I think everybody hopes he plays well. When he is, the interest level is so high, so who doesn’t want that kind of interest brought to the game? I hope he does great things.”