Tiger Woods returned to familiarity on Wednesday, to the fairways and greens of Torrey Pines Golf Course, comfortable confines that are etched in his mind like the layout of his childhood home some 90 miles north in Cypress.
Whether this will be the week he returns to normalcy on the golf course where he has won seven times as a professional will depend on what happens in the Farmers Insurance Open, his first PGA Tour event of the year. But he could not have picked a better place to find out.
Relaxed, rested and seemingly at peace after a winless and tumultuous year, Woods, 35, said his game was in good shape and that he was prepared to resume his climb to the top of golf’s Mount Olympus. He said it with a smile and a self-assured tone that were absent from his public appearances last year. He left little room for doubt that, despite all the changes in his life, the audacious goal he set before his first professional tournament in 1996 — to win every tournament he enters — was intact.
“The goal’s still the same,” he said. “Try to beat all their butts. It hasn’t changed.”
Many things have changed, though, since Woods last played here, beating Rocco Mediate in a Monday playoff to win the 2008 United States Open. Among the oft-recited litany of losses, fallout from the off-course scandal in his personal life, are his ranking as the No. 1 player in the world; his marriage; multiple corporate endorsements; millions of dollars; and the on-course focus that made him the most prolific winner of golf tournaments (71) in the fewest number of years (14) in golf history.
Coming off a year in which he failed to win a tournament for the first time since he began playing competitively, Woods said he had balance in his life and that the memory from last year that was clearest in his mind was of the second shot he hit into the 72nd hole of the Chevron World Challenge.
“That was it,” he said. “All the changes I made in my swing, when I needed it the most. I needed to hit the 8-iron with that kind of shot, and I pulled it off. So under the most intense pressure I hit the shot I needed to hit when I needed to hit it.
“I needed to hit that fade. I needed to hit the 8-iron flush. I needed to get it there. I needed to hit it through the wind. And I did all those things and hit it to two and a half feet.”
Not one to rhapsodize about a shot unless it happens to meet his standards, and rarely one to recall a shot that did not lead to a victory, Woods chose to single out that one because it signaled that his work with the teacher Sean Foley had taken root and that his confidence in himself to execute under pressure was back. Graeme McDowell won the tournament by making two long putts, the first to tie and the second to win a playoff, but Woods had proved a larger truth to himself.
And now his peers see him coming back to where he was. Phil Mickelson, whose comedic timing is sometimes on a par with his short game, was asked what he expected to see from Woods this year. He started with what he had noticed toward the end of last year, at the BMW Championship and during the Ryder Cup singles.
“His speed was back up,” Mickelson said. “He was hitting it long. His touch was coming back, and I expect that he’ll be the Tiger that we’ve known for over a decade.”
Then Mickelson paused theatrically for effect before adding, “Unfortunately.”
That got a big laugh. Because what Mickelson realizes is the same as what the commissioner of the PGA Tour, Tim Finchem, knows and what television executives, fans and every tour player knows. A competitive Tiger Woods, focused on winning and not on discussions with lawyers, will help put the focus back on the sport.
And this week at Torrey Pines, there will be an intense competition that it likely to heat up again. An invigorated Woods and a golf course full of fearless young players who have been emboldened by his absence could be a recipe for entertainment that was missing last year.
Those who have written off Woods will be pulling hard against him. The fans who missed the single-minded pursuit of excellence that was absent from the distracted and somewhat wounded Woods will be pulling the other way.
And Woods is ready to see if what he believes he is bringing to the course will, in fact, be what he brings.