January 25, 2017

Tiger makes long-awaited return to PGA TOUR at Farmers

Tiger Woods starts his 21st year on the PGA TOUR on Thursday at the $6.7 million Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

It’s a place he knows well.

Woods has recorded eight professional victories at Torrey, including the 2008 U.S. Open. His previous wins in the Farmers came in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2013.

After sitting out last season recovering from back surgery, Tiger returned to competition two months ago at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, where he led the field with 24 birdies and finished 15th in the 17-player unofficial event. It marked his first tournament appearance in nearly 15 months, having previously played in August 2015 at the Wyndham Championship, where he tied for 10th.

“I’m excited,” Tiger said. “I’m playing well. I just need to get some tournament rounds under my belt.”

On Wednesday, Woods announced he has signed a multiyear deal with TaylorMade Golf to play its woods, irons and wedges. In December, he announced a new agreement with Bridgestone to play their balls, and he will stick with an old Scotty Cameron Newport 2 putter.

“After several months of testing and all brands to choose from, the choice is clearly @TaylorMadeGolf,” Woods tweeted. “Proud to join the family.”

Tiger, who has used Nike clubs since turning pro in 1996, will carry an old set of their irons this week. He will begin to work shortly with TaylorMade engineers and designers to develop new irons.

Woods is expected to play the 2016 TaylorMade M2 driver and the 2017 M2 13-degree and M1 19-degree fairway woods.

The Farmers kicks off a busy stretch for Woods, who has committed to play four tournaments in the next five weeks. He will travel to the Middle East to compete in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic next week, take a week off, then play back-to-back at the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, and The Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Tiger knows his schedule is ambitious and has concerns, but welcomes the challenge.

“That’s obviously a lot of golf,” he said. “I’ve sat out long enough. My body is in a pretty good state where I feel I can handle that workload. But I still have to go out and do it.”

Woods has played about five times a week near his home in Jupiter, Florida, since the Hero World Challenge, even teeing it up with then-President-elect Donald Trump last month. Admittedly, it’s not the same atmosphere, pressure or conditions he will face this week, but Tiger is ready to get started at one of his favorite venues.

“You keep building, keep progressing and get used to playing tournament golf again,” said the 41-year-old Woods, whose 79 PGA TOUR wins rank second only to Sam Snead with 82. “It’s different being out here at our level and playing against these guys. I’ve been away from it for a very long time.”

Tiger isn’t exactly slipping in under the radar. He will play the first two rounds at Torrey with Jason Day and 2016 PGA TOUR Player of the Year Dustin Johnson, who rank first and third, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better pairing,” Woods said.

While Woods said he’s longer off the tee now than ever before, it’s all relative compared to the distance of Johnson, Day and others. He will not try to keep pace with them the next two days.

“I’ll just play my game,” he said. “The name of the game is low score. It’s not a long-drive contest.”

The trio starts Thursday on the first tee of the South Course at 1:40 p.m. ET, then shifts to the 10th tee of the newly renovated North Course on Friday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

As always, Woods has winning on his mind this week. He’s also realistic.

“I need to have my health at a state where I can prepare and get my game ready to play at an elite level,” Tiger said. “When I feel that way, I know I can shoot scores and win golf tournaments.”

Woods showed flashes of brilliance last month at the Hero World Challenge. In the second round, he fired a bogey-free, 7-under 65.

“The last two years have been rough,” he said. “To get back out here and play again feels good.”

Woods played in the pro-am Wednesday morning. While he is well-acquainted with both courses, he got his first look at the recently redone North, overseen by Tom Weiskopf. In the past, the course has played about three shots easier than the South, but that figures to change this year.

The North has been lengthened 200 yards and now measures 7,258 compared to the South at 7,698. It has more teeth, too, as six par-4s now stretch 450 yards or longer. In addition, average green sizes have been increased from 4,500 to 6,400 square feet.

“For some reason, I felt comfortable,” Woods said.

His top priority starting out will be getting into the flow and rhythm of tournament play. He’ll also have to adjust to cooler temperatures, soggy fairways and shaggy rough.

“I couldn’t be happier to be back,” he said. “It’s going to be fun.”