SAN DIEGO – A steady drizzle fell on Tiger Woods and everyone else on Friday in the second round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. The game was about not just golf but finding one more usable towel in the bag, keeping the grips dry. But there was no wind, and Woods picked apart this seaside muni.
What stood out, though, was not that he ended the day with a two-shot lead at 11 under par after firing a seven-under 65, or that his threesome, which also included Rickie Fowler (65) and Nick Watney (68), shot 18 under. What stood out is how much this looked like the old Tiger, the old Tour, even with all that's happened in the four-and-a-half years since he last won at Torrey, on June 16, 2008.
"I'm really excited about this year," Woods said.
As well he should be.
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Woods is still the man at the top, still the guy in the black Nike cap, still being linked to a hot blonde (the skier Lindsey Vonn – although neither of them has confirmed they are dating). He is as uncomfortable as ever with his celebrity, and as tight-lipped as ever with the press. After he finished talking about his round Friday, Woods was asked to comment on Tim Clark's game for a writer who was no doubt working on a piece about golf's anchored-putting debate.
"Straight," Woods said of Clark.
Uh, could he expound on that?
"Short," Woods added, smiling as if his brevity really was the soul of wit.
Bidding to win here for the eighth time as a pro, Woods is doing a very convincing Tiger Woods impersonation. It felt like old times to watch him Friday as he rolled in a roughly eight-foot par putt on three; slammed his club after tugging his tee shot into the trap on the par-3 sixth hole (but still made par); spun back his approach shot on seven, his ball lipping out for eagle (he made birdie). If you had been living on another planet since 2008, only to come back to earth and Torrey this week, you'd be tempted to say, "Hey, I didn't miss a thing!"
Of course it's not true, and to soak up the relatively subdued atmosphere around Woods the first two days at Torrey, the smaller crowds even on day one, when the weather was good, is to feel it. "Tiger does what he does," one fan said.
(Related Photos: SI's Best Shots From Torrey Pines)
That weary sentiment sums up the prevailing mood at Torrey. After all that's happened — the sex scandal and the divorce, the disbelieving public and the clunky attempts at image rehabilitation, the messy break-ups with coach Hank Haney and caddie Steve Williams — Woods at 37 inspires not so much adulation but a sort of clinical, detached curiosity. Maybe he just needs to win another major (they say the 15th is always the hardest) before the hysteria returns. Maybe.
Woods was watched by a slow-moving scrum of soggy humanity Friday, but they couldn't have been much different from the unruly throng that followed him here at the '08 U.S. Open, back when the police had to get involved right around happy hour late Friday. Here's how crazy the 2013 crowd got Friday: An old guy on seven complained he was having a hard time seeing through the umbrellas.
Here's a crazy statistic: Woods has won in five of his last six starts at Torrey Pines. It's one of those confounding Tiger stats that Brandt Snedeker calls, with perfect understatement, "Not normal."
And here's another crazy statistic: Tiger has 74 PGA Tour victories. The next seven players on the leaderboard have a combined zero trophies.
Woods again looked like the class of the South Course on Thursday until a few late bogeys left him with a 68. On the easier North Course on Friday, playing in a light drizzle for most of the day, he was five under on the four par 5s, and went birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie in a four-hole stretch from the 17th to the second holes. (He started his round on the back nine.)
"I hit good shots all the way," said Woods, who will be joined by Billy Horschel (69 on the South) and Casey Wittenberg (67 North) for Saturday's third round. The threesome will tee off on the South Course at 12:40 p.m. ET. "I hit driver and a 5-iron to 18 [a par 5]. I hit a driver and 8-iron to one [another par 5], and a driver and a flip sand wedge to two. So I didn't really miss a shot through that stretch."
Is this the same Tiger Woods we saw from 1997 through 2008? Well, no, but he sure looks close. Witness not his missed cut in Abu Dhabi last week — a blip attributable to his two-stroke penalty for taking an incorrect drop — but his play at Torrey this week, or his three wins last year, which brought his total to 74, within striking distance of Sam Snead's 82. An even better indicator, Woods said, is how he looks as he practices at the Medalist or on his sprawling South Florida estate.
"I've had beautiful practice sessions at home," he said. "If I can do it there, I can do it out here."
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And by extension, if he can do it out here, he can do it over four rounds at Augusta National, Merion, Muirfield, and Oak Hill — the courses that will host golf's four major championships in 2013. If and when that happens, and Woods closes the gap between himself and Jack Nicklaus (18 majors, in case you forgot), the enthusiasm will be anything but muted, almost as if the last four and a half years never happened.