Tiger Woods was quick to set the record straight, with a smile.
As he gets ready to embark on his 21st season on the PGA Tour, a reporter mentioned to Woods that he had won at Torrey Pines “seven or eight times” and asked how much his comfort level was a factor in deciding where to start his year.
“Eight times,” Woods replied. “And one as a junior, so it’s technically nine. So I like that place .”
Woods first dipped his toes in the water eight weeks ago in the Bahamas at an unofficial event with an 18-man field and no cut. Expectations were low, and so was the stress. Still, it was his first competition since a pair of back surgeries kept out of golf for 15 months. It was an important first step.
Torrey Pines is sure to invite greater inspection.
There is no other golf course on the PGA Tour that Woods knows better or is more comfortable playing.
Yes, he also won eight times at Bay Hill and Firestone. Bay Hill was always feast or famine for Woods; even during his peak years, he failed to finish inside the top 20 on five occasions. What gives Torrey Pines the edge over Firestone is that during an 11-year stretch, Woods never finished more than four shots behind the winner against a 156-man field. And one of those was a U.S. Open on a left knee that was surgically rebuilt a week later.
But while positive memories are powerful in golf, they can be a double-edged sword for a 41-year-old golfer on the mend, especially when the most recent memories are a reminder of how he began a rapid slide from the top of the world ranking.
The 18th hole at Torrey Pines will forever be remembered for Woods making a 12-foot birdie to force a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open, which he won the next day for his 14th major. The last time Woods played it in competition was in 2014. He came up well short from 254 yards and into the water, took a drop, flew the green into a plugged lie in the bunker and made double bogey on his way to missing the 54-hole cut.
Woods didn’t play the South Course in 2015 because he withdrew after 11 holes of the opening round on the North Course when his back tightened on him during fog delays and he couldn’t get his glutes activated.
Those are his two most recent trips to the Farmers Insurance Open.
Woods undoubtedly will lean more on his body of work at Torrey, which is unparalleled.
His first victory as a professional was in 1999, when he made the cut with two shots to spare and shot 62-65 on the weekend for a two-shot victory.
He won five straight times at Torrey in four years, twice in 2008. At the PGA Tour event that year, Woods opened with a 67 on the South Course and a caddie who stayed behind to watch him finish on the 18th said, “He just won two tournaments with one round.” Sure enough, Woods won by eight shots that week, then returned in June and won the U.S. Open despite not having walked 18 holes from the Masters until the opening round at Torrey.
Here’s another way to look at his record: His performance at Torrey Pines alone is better than the PGA Tour careers of every player in the field except for Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Padraig Harrington (six victories, but three majors).
But what does it all matter?
This is a different day for Woods, a time when hopes are higher than expectations.
Woods is so enthusiastic about being healthy enough to compete that he has scheduled four tournaments over the next five weeks, which will take him from San Diego to Dubai to Los Angeles to South Florida. Not even he knows how he will hold up, though he’s willing to find out. That alone is progress.
He is at No. 663 in the world, a product of having played just 12 times in the last 24 months.
“I think he’s excited,” Jason Day said. “Who wouldn’t be excited to play after 17 months off?”
On a soft golf course that still had puddles in the fairway on Tuesday because of the rain, Woods is playing the opening two rounds with Day and Dustin Johnson, two of the best in the world. Day has been at No. 1 since March. Johnson is the U.S. Open champion with one of the most powerful swings in golf.
Woods said if his back feels good, then he can prepare. And if he can prepare, he says he can compete.
That’s where he is.
Even at Torrey Pines, it figures to take more than a week to figure out how far he has to go.