SAN DIEGO — There are so many questions about Tiger Woods and the state of his golf game as he returns to PGA Tour competition for the first time in 17 months at Torrey Pines this week.
Can his surgically repaired back withstand the rigors of the week-in-week-out Tour grind? Can he shake off the rust — and adjust to his new TaylorMade sticks — in time to make a run for a green jacket in April? Can he win again, anywhere, ever, or have we seen the last flashes of brilliance from our generation’s greatest golfer?
On Wednesday, at his press conference following his pro-am round ahead of his 2017 debut at the Farmers Insurance Open, Woods made it clear that he doesn’t have the answers, either. But like us, he’s eager to find out what the future will bring.
“I don’t know,” Woods responded when asked if he thinks he can return to the top his game and win on Tour in 2017. “We all know I haven’t played a full schedule in a very long time, so this is an unknown.”
Torrey Pines is the first stop on an atypically aggressive early-season schedule for Woods designed to jumpstart his competitive engine. Woods plans to tee it up at the Dubai Desert Classic next week and then take a week off before playing back-to-back at the Genesis Open in California and The Honda Classic in Florida.
“One of the reasons why I’m playing four out of five is to get into the playing rhythm of playing competitive golf again,” Woods said. “I’ve been away from it for so long.”
In his first test, Woods will play a familiar course from an unfamiliar position — that of underdog. Torrey Pines provided the backdrop for some of Woods’s most memorable triumphs. He won the Buick Invitational six times and the Farmers Insurance Open once before he overcame injury to conquer the course and claim his 14th major title at the 2008 U.S. Open.
“I made a putt in 2008 that a few people remember,” Woods joked on Wednesday.
But Woods hasn’t won since 2013, and he has since endured an extensive layoff as he recovered from multiple back surgeries that put his competitive future in doubt. Beset by age and injuries, today’s Woods is a man mindful of the limitations that once seemed only to plague other players.
According to Woods, the process of testing clubs to restock his bag after Nike’s exit from the golf equipment industry was managed around ongoing concerns about his health.
“It’s a process in which I had to be very careful going into because of my procedures on my back.” Woods said. “I physically just couldn’t go out there and hit hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of golf balls a day similar to what some of the guys are doing now.”
This might not be the tough-talking, big-swinging Woods of 2008, but that doesn’t mean Woods can’t win in 2017. Woods will tee it up alongside World No. 1 Jason Day and reigning U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson, two of the longest hitters on Tour, at Torrey Pines on Thursday, but asked if he would be tempted to go shot-for-shot with the young guns, Woods said he didn’t need to.
“Oh, hell no,” Woods said, drawing laughter from the crowd of reporters. “I can’t carry the ball 320 yards out here. Those guys will bomb it out there, and that’s fine. I’ll just play my game and the name of the game is low score. It’s not a long-drive contest.”
We’ll finally start to get our answers on Thursday. Tiger will, too.
“It’s hard to remember,” he said, “when I was this excited.”