Woods realistic approach to comeback at Torrey Pines eyes Masters

LA JOLLA, Calif. – The most refreshing thing a fresh-faced Tiger Woods said Wednesday ahead of his 2018 PGA Tour debut?

His sights are set on April.

The legend so used to winning has always declared he’s about the “W” whenever and wherever he tees it up, even when logic suggested post-surgery goals should be more modest.

There is little doubt Woods would relish contending for his 80th PGA Tour official victory right out of the gate at the Farmers Insurance Open. Instead, however, his expectations come off as realistic.

“I haven’t played and I’ve got to start somewhere and try and get my game and my feel back,” he said after a pro-am round that showed flashes of both the old Tiger and rusty Tiger. “I just really haven’t played tournament golf in, well, basically since Wyndham in 2015. It’s been a long time and so I just want some starts, I want to start feeling what it feels like to be out here and hit shots, grind out scores and that’s something that I’ve been looking forward to.”

Maybe it’s the memory of how quickly things changed last year, or perhaps perspective on his priorities at 42. But a relaxed and noticeably-glowing Tiger is easing into things with Augusta in mind.

“I’m just trying to build towards April,” Woods said. “I’m looking forward to playing a full schedule and getting ready for the Masters and I haven’t done that in a very long time. That’s usually been my schedule and my outlook. From ’96 on it’s been that way to try to get ready for Augusta and there’s no reason to change that.”

On multiple occasions, Woods reminded media assembled in a packed news conference that he continues to be pain-free, a stark contrast to his pre-back-surgery days.

“I have no more pain in my back, my back is fused,” he said. “That wasn’t the case last year. I was trying to manage the disk and the vertebrae, but it’s all finished now. Now it’s fused and quality of life is infinitely better than it was last year at this point.”

The run-up to this Torrey Pines comeback is markedly different in another way: no pain has meant golf six days a week since December’s Hero World Challenge.

“Before I had to manage how many holes I played, how many swings I made,” Woods said. “It was all about managing my body. Now it’s just, hey, want to go play 18, want to go play 36? Sure! That to me is fun.”

Given Woods’ insistence that he’s pain-free – and his chatty disposition with pro-am partners Wednesday reinforced how comfortable he is playing golf again – a repeat of last year’s performance seems unlikely. As they say in in horse racing, draw a line through the Big Cat’s last Torrey Pines race.

The record here is well known but worth recounting in a world that only remembers 2017’s 76-72 missed cut. The South Course was the site of his last major championship win, the 2008 U.S. Open. Woods has eight professional wins here, seven in the event currently known as the Farmers Insurance Open. He captured four consecutive Farmers from 2005 to 2008.

As for what it would take to win, Woods said he isn’t as good at predicting the outcomes given how much of the competition he hasn’t scouted.

“I’m usually pretty good at calling the number before the tournament starts, but I haven’t seen a lot of these young guys,” he said. “I met Jon (Rahm) yesterday for the first time and it’s been a lot of names that I haven’t seen, I haven’t played with, I haven’t seen their games and we’ll see.”

Woods tees off the South Course first hole at 10:40 a.m. PT Thursday with Rahm, who is relishing the opportunity.

“When Tiger Woods plays a golf tournament, it’s huge for the game of golf,” Rahm said in his defending champion’s press conference. “Tiger getting in contention, it would be absolutely amazing. And to be honest I think a lot of us dreamt about having the opportunity to maybe walk the back nine with Tiger in contention and have a battle hand in hand.”

Hoping he’s the one to have the showdown with Woods, Rahm also knows losing to the legend would still reap benefits for many.

“If Tiger Woods were to win again, I think it would be something amazing for the game of golf.”