Tiger Woods fighting to rediscover his game in PGA Tour return

Tiger Woods says he's confident about his game and health, but feeling good about it, and doing it are two totally different things.

SAN DIEGO – Whenever Tiger Woods felt healthy enough to swing a club these past 17 months, he often did so in his backyard while wearing shorts and no shirt.

More recently he’s been playing four or five rounds per week at Medalist Golf Club, a track near his home that comes with the built-in comfort of the South Florida heat and no issues with slow play.

So, this?

This was something entirely different. We had difficult conditions on the South Course at Torrey Pines, a breathtaking U.S. Open-worthy layout, and we had a man (occasionally) walking the fairways in his former footsteps while trying to rediscover his game.

“I’m trying to get a feel for it and trying to get a feel for playing,” Woods explained Thursday in the fading light. “There’s just so much is different, you know?”

That includes his spot in the field after a 4-over 76 to open the Farmers Insurance Open. Woods was tied for 133rd out of 155 golfers and is in need of a great Friday round on the North Course to make the cut.

However, given the unique circumstances at play here, that shouldn’t be the bar used to measure his success.

As Sportsnet analyst and former PGA Tour player Ian Leggatt noted earlier this week, it’s no small miracle Woods can even walk to the tee and draw back his club. The 14-time major winner had serious doubts as recently as a year ago that he would ever play again because of back issues that required two surgeries since he last competed.

That’s why there was so much excitement in the air when Woods stepped on the grounds Thursday to compete in his 328th PGA Tour event.

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Fans pressed their faces against a fence lining the driving range and yelled “Go Tiger!” during his warmup.

Six-time major winner-turned-commentator Nick Faldo was among those with a cellphone out to capture Woods hitting balls.

Several thousand people swelled around the first tee box and fairway when the 10:40 a.m. grouping of Woods, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson arrived. The entire course seemed to tilt in one direction.

“I’m always excited to see how he’s going to play,” said Day, the world No. 1. “Having 17 months off is a very, very long time. I think everyone was kind of anticipating what the comeback would look like.”

If you were expecting magic, you were disappointed.

Woods didn’t always know where his shots were headed and saw far too many corners of the property to pile up red numbers. He salvaged some strokes with a sharp short game – a return to his trusty Scotty Cameron putter paid immediate dividends – and elicited a huge roar from the gallery on No. 18 when he managed a closing birdie, one of three he made on the day.

“I fought my tail off out there,” said Woods. “I fought hard.”

How measured he is approaching this comeback speaks volumes about the road ahead. He bears little resemblance to the man who once made competitors shrink in his midst, a player who refused to put a tee in the ground without the stated expectation he would win.

That is but a memory.

Woods showed a few signs of frustration here Thursday – lightly slamming his driver a couple times after hitting a tee shot into the hazard on No. 15 – but acknowledged that it’s going to take time to find his best.

“That’s what (caddie) Joey (LaCava) kept telling me all day today: ‘Just be patient with it,”’ said Woods. “I didn’t quite smile at him a few of those times he said that. But I was fighting out there trying to get my ball around the golf course and score.”

It is with good reason that this will be the first of four events in a five-week stretch. He is like a prize fighter who hasn’t even had a sparring session.

[pullquote] “I fought my tail off out there,” said Woods. “I fought hard.” [/pullquote]

Woods was once the most comfortable golfer on the planet when everything got uncomfortable, and now he has no idea what comfort is.

He hadn’t played in conditions like this since shooting an even-par 70 at the Wyndham Championship in August 2015, and found everything down to the five-plus hour round unusual.

“It’s weird to say this, but we were playing so much slower than I’m used to,” said Woods. “We were out there talking most of the day trying just to kill time.”

Fired-up members of the gallery spoke often, too, yelling things like “this is your course!” and “it’s good to have you back!” and “I’ve been waiting since ’08!” in his direction.

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Woods has authored so much personal history here, winning a world junior title at age 15 and another eight tournaments as a pro, including the 2008 U.S. Open on a shattered leg. That’s when we first got a real glimpse of his fallibility, even though he rallied to beat Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff.

All of the local knowledge accumulated over the years was bouncing around his mind so much that he didn’t even really notice the huge gallery while standing on the first tee Thursday.

“I was so focused on hitting the ball up the right side, not in the left bunker, because I remember hitting it over there in the U.S. Open and being dead,” said Woods.

He wound up knocking it into an unfavourable part of the right rough. It was a sign of the struggles to come.

“Not only was [the ball] into the grain but it was buried underneath there and it was going from left to right, which that’s the path I needed to take,” said Woods. “So I’m like ‘OK, this is the very first hole. Let’s not do this anymore.’

“Unfortunately, I did it most of the day.”

When – or if – he’ll stop doing it is anyone’s guess.

But this is not the time to assess where his career is headed. Simply competing again is an accomplishment for the greatest golfer of his generation.

“Let him go a year,” said Day. “Let him play and go from there.”

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