LA JOLLA, Calif. -- The Tiger Woods reunion tour has returned to Torrey Pines, site of many of his greatest hits. Yet his sloppy 76 on Thursday left him in 133rd place, and afterward it was impossible not to wonder if this Woods is going to be akin to the late-period Elvis, a diminished figure who the crowds come to gawk at even if he can no longer summon the right notes.
Woods has rightly been preaching patience as he toils to piece back together his game and competitive identity, but how long can he -- and we -- endure such middling play? It's been nearly 3.5 years since his last victory. In that time he has suffered three back surgeries, the chip-yips and countless other on-course setbacks. This week's Farmers Insurance Open was supposed to be a fresh start on a course where Tiger won the Junior Worlds as a teen, eight subsequent Tour events and the epic 2008 U.S. Open, the gutsiest performance in a career full of them. (It must be noted that this Open was his last major championship victory, when Woods was 33 and looking to enjoy many more prime years.) The sense of optimism around Torrey was unmistakable.
"Big Cat is back!" said Charles Howell, who would beat his buddy by nine shots on Thursday, leaving him in a tie for third place, two behind leader Justin Rose. "Nobody moves the needle like Tiger does. Not even close. This is a big-time event, just because he's here." Indeed, it was 10-deep around the 1st tee when Woods turned up for his 10:40 a.m. PT tee time, and the ovation was thunderous. But he can no longer summon heroics on-demand, and Woods's first shot of the new year was a push-slice into Torrey's thick, wet rough. He followed with a weak approach shot that expired right of the green. A credible pitch gave Woods a chance to save par but he missed the nine-footer, and the crowed never recaptured the energy it had on the 1st tee.
The rest of the front nine was an almighty struggle as Woods was missing fairways and missing greens with short irons. He managed to repeatedly save par because, as Tiger rightly said,"I fought my tail off out there." His reward finally came on the 10th hole, when a sweet approach shot below the hole gave him his first birdie on Tour in 523 days. But Woods's clubhead speed is down to 114 mph, and playing partner Dustin Johnson routinely blasted drives 30 or 40 yards past him. Woods once changed the game with his power but now, at 41, will have to reinvent himself as a finesse player. Alas, short and crooked doesn't work anywhere, especially not on a tough track like Torrey South. Woods would hit only four of 14 fairways on the day -- ranking him 142nd out of the 156 players in the field -- and he paid the price on the back nine, playing a six-hole stretch in six over par. A birdie on 18 brought a rueful smile.
"I'm certainly trying to get a feel for [my swing] and trying to get a feel for playing," Woods said. Referring to caddie Joe LaCava, Woods added, "That's what Joey kept telling me all day today: just be patient with it. I didn't quite smile at him a few of those times he said that."
This was only one round, and Woods will have plenty of opportunities to generate momentum with a heavy early season schedule that has him playing four tournaments in the space of five weeks (Torrey, Dubai, Riviera, Honda). But time is not necessarily on his side.
"Every tournament is a big deal for him," says Pat Perez (68/tied for eighth), who grew up playing junior golf with Woods. "I know Tiger. He has zero interest in just taking up space out here. If he's having to fight to make the cut every week, he's not going to last long. The guy has too much pride to struggle like that. So, yeah, he'll have status on Tour even when he's dead, but if you like watching Tiger play you better hope he comes out firing this year. Otherwise, it's sayonara."