LA JOLLA, Calif. — The massive throngs that mysteriously had a late January Thursday off from work suggest that the Tiger Woods comeback is now more than a tradition. It’s a holiday, too.
Presumably they were there to see him, anyway, but to see him do what? Other than the ubiquitous swoosh and the occasional epithet, Woods was giving them little that they might have recognized. There were no trademark fist pumps, no club twirls.
Yet for one shining moment late in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open, Woods gave them a glimpse of his old self, not at 42 his older self.
At the par-3 16th on the South Course at Torrey Pines, 190 yards across a chasm, Woods nearly made an ace. He hit it to eight inches of the hole, a tap-in birdie that was the highlight of an indifferent round of even-par 72.
“It’s just a full 6-iron, throw it up in the air,” he said. “The greens are really springy, so I was trying to land it soft. And we can’t see anything land from back there so we’re just listening for some noise and people started cheering.”
That’s why they were here.
Moral victories generally are vastly overrated, but concede him this one. He had played only 36 holes on the PGA Tour in the last 2½ years, yet he performed admirably. Admirably won’t be enough to get him to the weekend—he is tied for 84th—but he does have the more generous North Course on Friday.
“It was fun, it was fun to compete again,” he said. “It was fun to be out there. We had a great pairing today. Pat [Reed} played great, Charley [Hoffman] was solid all day, and I was probably a little bit rusty.”
He opened with a bogey, not an unusual start for Woods, who won the U.S. Open here without making a par at the first hole in the first four rounds in 2008. He hit only eight of 14 fairways and just 12 of 18 greens in regulation.
“On the back nine, he looked solid and steady,” Reed said. “When he wasn't too happy with a shot it still was manageable. That’s the biggest thing, not playing awhile. I took off six weeks off from competitive golf and played last week and felt like I didn’t know what the heck I was doing out there. There’s a lot of mental errors that happen. For a guy who played one tournament in a year to come out and play the way he did today, I was impressed.
“He seemed excited. He was in the zone, focusing on being a competitor, but I can imagine inside he was probably jumping for joy being out here with the guys playing golf again, especially pain free. That’s huge. He looked good.”
Woods’ harshest critic, meanwhile, was himself, and he veered sharply from his go-to cliche, that “it’s a process.”
“I didn’t hit my irons very well today,” Woods said. “I didn’t give myself a lot of looks out there and consequently I didn’t make a lot of birdies. I didn’t play the par 5s as well, either. I need to clean up my iron game and give myself a lot more looks at it.”
"Baby steps," Reed called them, fittingly, as it were, on behalf of a man attempting to turn back the clock.