The global curiosity on the subject of Tiger Woods the golfer, which had slid into a dormancy smothered by his serial surgeries, his quashed restarts and his half-creaking gait, might need to reawaken just about now. As Woods moves on from here to Riviera in Los Angeles beginning Feb. 15, the chart graph on the curiosity looks like it ought to nudge upward.
That impression, derived from his four rounds toward his 3-under-par 285 and his T-23 finish at Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open atop the cliffs here, owed to how he looked and to how he spoke.
He looked like one of those 42-year-olds whose friends might comment about his apparently retreating age, as when Hall of Fame golfer and CBS commentator Nick Faldo said, “He looks darned good,” and when leading golf intellectual Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press tweeted, “Tiger is a year older and looks five years younger than last year.”
He spoke not merely in the ludicrous optimism golfers require to steel their minds against their merciless sport, but in vivid language about life with two vertebrae newly fused (since last spring). Explaining how his short game could have turned up here as superior to his long game, he said on Saturday, “No, I don’t have burning pain down my leg. My leg’s not shaking. My foot’s working. Actually when I tell it to walk, it can actually walk.
“I was struggling, and it was not fun. People don’t realize, the shots that hurt the most were putts and the chips because I was the most bent-over. The shots I love to hit were the drivers; I was the least bent-over. You would think that would be the most speed, but that was the least painful of all my shots that I hit. Bunker shots were off-the-charts painful, but I just hated hitting little short shots because it just hurt. Give me a driver any day a year ago and I felt so much better.”
He even trickled upward into something that looked like contention.
As he began a final-round 72 on Sunday that would become his fourth round at par or better, he did so on the back nine at 8:15 a.m., in the hours generally tranquil around a tournament Sunday. It was well before the leaders would go out in what Woods’s return turned into a two-pronged event, one in which Jason Day, Alex Noren and Ryan Palmer reached a playoff, which Day and Noren will complete Monday morning after darkness halted play. Woods, the 14-time major winner and 79-time PGA Tour event winner, even brought along his old brain, daring per usual to hope for a title everyone else presumed impossible as he would say, later, “I really wanted to shoot something probably around 65. I thought that might be a playoff number, but . . .”
Yet while attracting his customary droves of spectators, he missed out on a birdie on No. 13, his fourth hole, when a supportive onlooker hollered amid Woods’s putting stroke. Yet he closed his opening nine with birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey-birdie, standing at 4 under par for the tournament, and you could feel excitement sweep the joint.
When he smashed his drives up the fairways on Nos. 1 and 2, birdieing No. 2, he not only tied for 20th place and looked like he might treat the crowds to something goose-bumpy while the wind had hastened to send the flagsticks doubling over. Woods also looked like he might have sorted out his wayward tee tendencies.
He had not. “I can feel some of the things I’m doing wrong in my swing,” he would say later. By the time he had finished with five pars and two bogeys, he had hit only three fairways, six for the weekend and 17 for the tournament, an area on which he will toil in the coming weeks. He wants to master something that got lost, which he described as “just my feel of hitting the ball the right number.”
“That’s what I think is the key thing,” Faldo said. “Let’s see when he comes back and can he get his finger on the timing of the swing. He looks darned good. He’s keeping his [club] speed up.”
More promisingly, his fused vertebrae are keeping everything else painless. “The big concern was playing out of the rough,” he said. “I hadn’t played out of rye grass since last year. It’s been about 12 full months . . .”
Fortunately, he gave himself ample practice out of the rough.
“Unfortunately, I put myself in there in the first place,” he said.
Yet he found that once in that rough, he could “jack up the speed and had no issues at all.” From trouble, he often got sublime. He said, “I fought hard for these scores. These weren’t yawners, down the middle, on the green, two-putt and one-hand all your second putts in the hole.” He even said, “It showed that I had heart,” even as everybody already knew that.
Speaking of Roger Federer, who won his 20th men’s tennis Grand Slam title at the Australian Open on Sunday, Woods said, “Yeah, he’s young. He’s 36. I guess it’s all relative. In that sport, he’s very old, but in our sport, I’m 42, that’s not that old. Davis [Love] won here when he was in his 50s. Vijay [Singh] did well all throughout his 40s. So it’s very possible out here for us.”
From the look and the sound of the weekend, his hope didn’t sound unreasonable.