There was a moment in Thursday’s opening round of the Farmers Insurance Open where you didn’t even have to squint to pretend it was 2008 again. Tiger Woods looked out over the 188-yard par-3 16th, waggled his six-iron, and then unleashed a shot that rolled within an inch—no joke, an inch—of the cup. It was quite possibly the finest shot Woods had hit in half a decade, and it got the mind wondering … what if?
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 25, 2018
At this point, if Woods does anything better than bursting into flames after a tee shot, his latest return to golf counts as a success. By that standard, then, he can look back on his first round at the Farmer’s Insurance Open with something approaching pride.
Woods finished the day at even par, carding three bogeys against three birdies for an opening-round 72. He hit the clubhouse already seven strokes behind the leaders, but that’s not even close to the point. If he clears the cut line and plays the weekend — he entered the clubhouse tied for 88th, so he’s got work to do — the weekend is a success.
Look, let’s not mince words here: the bar for Woods is so low at this point that he can practically step over it. That’s what happens when he’s tried and failed multiple comebacks from would-be career-ending injury, what happens when he’s been unable to get anywhere close to a major victory in the past ten freaking years.
That last victory, the triumphant U.S. Open win in 2008, came at the same links Woods played on Thursday, Torrey Pines’ South Course. Back then, even though Woods won his 14th major on a broken leg, it seemed impossible to believe Woods wouldn’t pass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors by, oh, 2011 at the latest. But then came hydrants and mistresses and injuries and drama upon drama, and here we are, a decade later.
Woods commands attention — being, at worst, the second-best golfer in the history of the world will do that, no matter how bad you are — but he doesn’t exactly inspire terror any more. Most of the guys he’s now teeing it up against never challenged Woods in his prime; his Thursday playing partner, Patrick Reed, was in high school when Woods won that 14th major. Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas — they all respect the hell out of Woods, but they don’t much fear him.
And why should they? Woods hasn’t played at anything close to a competitive level in years, a victim of multiple surgeries and swing reworkings. Sure, he’s played decent at his glorified shootaround in the Bahamas the last two years, but Thursday marked his first official return to full-field, tournament-level golf in nearly a year.
The result: a round where Woods scored somewhat better than expected, not dazzling but not letting any huge mistakes onto the card either. Let’s dig into some stats: on Thursday, Woods had a driving accuracy on the day of 57.14 percent, hit 64.71 percent of his greens in regulation, and lost 1.495 strokes putting.
For comparison purposes, in 2013, his last truly great year, he finished with a driving accuracy of 62.5 percent (69th on Tour) and a greens-in-regulation percentage of 67.59 percent (24th on Tour). The big discrepancy comes on the green; 2013 Tiger gained almost two full strokes on the green over Thursday’s Tiger.
Yes, one round compared against an entire 43-round season is the very definition of small sample size. And ever since 2008, Woods has had far less trouble competing on Thursdays and Fridays than on the weekends. Still: progress is progress, even if it’s slow.
“It was fun to compete out there today,” Woods said afterward, conceding that “I was a little rusty.”
Mark it down: if Woods is able to make the cut in the four majors this year, 2018 will go down as a phenomenal success. But let’s not even think that big. If Woods is able to tee it up in the four majors this year, that’ll be a victory. He’s off to a decent enough start.
Woods tees off Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
More golf on Yahoo Sports