Even if he does win the Farmers, Tiger Woods can’t win this week

January 24, 2014

LA JOLLA, Calif. — Contrary to popular belief there are things Tiger Woods hasn't done at Torrey Pines, host of this week's Farmers Insurance Open. He has never greeted the first Spanish explorers on the first tee. He has never sailed his yacht through the tiny water hazard on 18.

Everything else? Done it.

Woods didn't have his best stuff in the first round Thursday, but he scratched out an even-par 72 on the difficult South Course. At times fighting a two-way miss with the driver, he at least didn't shoot himself out of it and trails first-round leader Stewart Cink (64, North Course) by eight.

Gary Woodland shot 65 on the North and trailed Cink by one.

"Well, even par's not too bad," Woods said, "but I didn't play the par 5s worth a darn. I played them even par. I parred all of them. Obviously that's paramount to try and get any kind of scoring on the South course is you've got to take care of the par 5s, because there's not a lot of holes [where] you can make birdies here."

A big crowd turned up to watch Woods — wearing a light pink shirt with gray and black trim, and black slacks — brawl the South and its healthy rough. He was coming off a long break — it's been over six weeks since he finished runner-up to Zach Johnson at the World Challenge at Sherwood, a few hours north of here — and the world No. 1 at times looked rusty.

On the dogleg-right, par-5 sixth hole, he pulled his drive left into the fairway bunker, hit his second shot into the right rough and couldn't get up and down from there. At the 611-yard, straightaway, par-5 ninth, he lost his drive right, letting go of the club and letting it fall to the ground in front of him. He made pars on both holes. That was underwhelming, but not terrible.

Although there was talk that the South might play like "a mini-U.S. Open," as Jason Day (66 on the North) put it, Woods said it did not.

"We figured the Tour might soften it up and they did," he said. "The balls were holding and a couple of wedge shots were spinning back."

Still, he hit just seven of 14 fairways and made two birdies against two bogeys. Playing partner Jordan Spieth, the runaway Rookie of the Year in 2013, hit 11 of 14 fairways but could manage only a 1-under 71, while Jimmy Walker, the third member of the group, struggled and signed for a 74.

"I didn't feel that rusty," Woods said. "I felt that I hit a lot of good shots. I hit probably three loose ones out there, which, that's just the way it goes, but it wasn't that bad. As I said, I needed to take care of the par 5s today. If I play those normal, I'm 2- or 3-under par and all the sudden it's a pretty good round."

Although he finds himself well down the leaderboard in his bid for a ninth professional title at Torrey, Woods at least gets a shot at the easier North Course on Friday. In a way he can't lose. He's in Southern California, not far from where he grew up. He can work on his game with coach Sean Foley in the secluded north end of the driving range.

But in a way he can't win. That's mostly because of his absurdly great record here. He has won heroically ('08 U.S. Open, over Rocco Mediate) and not so much ('06 Buick Invitational, Jose Maria Olazabal's missed a four-footer). He has won coming off of knee surgery ('03, beat Carl Pettersson by four), going into knee surgery ('08 U.S. Open), and twice in six months (Woods also won the '08 Buick, by eight shots). His presence has been felt on these cliffs above the Pacific even in absentia, as it was in '09, after his complicated private life went public and he went into hiding.

Even if Woods does win this week, and it's far too early to count him out, the skeptics will note that he always wins at Torrey Pines. They want to see him win that 15th major and get back on track to break Jack's all-time career record (18). These skeptics were eager to measure Woods against one of his two playing partners Thursday, the 20-year-old Spieth, who was mostly showing everyone what all the hype is about.

With Woods in trouble on six, Spieth blistered a 316-yard drive to set up a birdie. At the par-3 11th hole, Woods dumped his tee shot in the bunker and made bogey. Spieth trickled over the green and got up and down for par.

Spieth, who had to Monday-qualify for this tournament a year ago before picking up his first Tour win and making the U.S. Presidents Cup team, would make four birdies, the last on 18, but also three bogeys. He's almost 20 years younger than Woods, whom he edged by a shot.

"I know that I don't have 20 years in my prime," Woods said earlier this week. "I'm 38, I don't see being 58 and being in my prime. Most guys don't jump from the foul line at age 58, so it's a little different, but the outlook is still the same. I still prepare the same, I still work my tail off to be ready to compete at this level and beat everyone that I'm playing against."

Would he still be happy with his career if he won "only" 14 majors?

"All I know is that I'm still in I feel my peak years," he said. "I'm still playing well. There have been a number of guys who have gone on even in their early 40s to win major championships. Mark [O'Meara] did it — he's the oldest one to do it, to win multiples in the same year. Jack won in his 40s, Hogan won multiples in his 40s, actually 38 and above. I feel like I've got a number of years ahead of me and I'm really looking forward to that."

Judging from the size of Thursday's crowd, he's not the only one.