SAN DIEGO – There’s always one shot that looks different from the rest.
Tuesday afternoon it came from the 18th fairway at Torrey Pines’ South Course, where Tiger Woods was finishing up a short practice round with Jordan Spieth ahead of this week’s Farmers Insurance Open.
Woods leaned into a fairway wood from well over 250 yards out and sent it on a great line, his ball carrying the water and landing safely on the green at the par-5 finishing hole.
It’s the same green where Woods made maybe the most clutch putt of his career at the 2008 U.S. Open, draining a 12-foot birdie to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate. His victory in the 18-hole Monday playoff was one of eight career wins at Torrey Pines, where Woods can soak up the good vibes to start his 2018-19 season.
At some point in the round, Spieth asked Woods how long he’d been coming to this course.
“’Well, 10 years longer than you’ve been alive,’” Woods told him. “This is the first PGA Tour event that I ever attended with my dad when this was the old Andy Williams tournament. To have won on this property and had the success I’ve had, it’s been a lot of fun and looking forward to getting out this week. The rough’s up after the weather they had last week and it’s going to be important to really hit the ball well.”
Fairways are definitely important here and Woods found a good number of them playing 10 holes with Spieth in the early afternoon. There’s a new driver in his bag, a TaylorMade M5 model, and he spent time getting it dialed in during the offseason. He hit a few different shot shapes off the tee Tuesday, including a piercing draw on the par-4 12th that almost ran through the fairway. That’s a shot he used more frequently during the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, where he was solid off the tee but rusty around the greens.
Woods’ must underrated turnaround last season was accuracy, which drastically improved after he started playing a high fade throughout the FedEx Cup Playoffs and during the Tour Championship win at East Lake.
Few seemed to notice that Woods was living in the fairway all fall, and he’s hoping for more of the same to avoid the daunting rough at this place.
Woods also has a new M5 3-wood in the bag this week, along with updated versions of the new TaylorMade irons he put in play for the first time last season. The wedges are brand new but the specs are the same, and he was using the trusty Scotty Cameron Newport 2 putter Tuesday after experimenting with two different flat sticks last summer.
Woods spent nearly all of last season getting comfortable with his clubs and swing again following spinal fusion surgery, but after 18 starts he knows exactly what he needs equipment-wise. He just needs to get back in the flow of tournament play after two months off.
“My feel is something I’m going to have to figure out,” Woods said. “Just like anytime I come back and start the season, it’s getting into the flow of the round quickly, how fast can I feel the flow of the round? The times I’ve struggled it’s been two or three holes and that’s too long. It’s gotta be on that first hole.”
Other than that, Woods has it covered. Conditioning made up a healthy chunk of his offseason prep, and he said he feels “a lot stronger” thanks to all that time in the gym. Now that he knows what to expect and roughly how much he’ll play this season, he’s confident he’ll hold up physically after a summer filled with uncomfortably hot rounds at jam-packed venues.
That wasn’t a concern Tuesday with temperatures in low 60s and a cool breeze flowing off the Pacific Ocean. Woods wore a black Nike sweater and black pants and spent a lot of time talking with Spieth after the two shared the U.S. Ryder Cup team room in Paris.
New rules were a topic of discussion early on, with Woods asking Spieth if he was a flag in or flag out guy now that leaving it in is an option. Woods said he likes having caddie Joe LaCava tend on longer putts and will probably keep doing that. He’s been toying around with leaving it in while practice back home in Jupiter, Fla., but it doesn’t sound like we’ll see much of it this week.
“I’ve been experimenting trying to hit putts downhill at home and see how that feels, and I didn’t find that I hit better putts,” Woods said. “It just felt like I could hit it more aggressively, which I did. Then I started running it eight, nine feet by … I understand why some of the guys are doing it. It might be more advantageous when we get on faster greens with a little bit more slope, i.e. at Augusta.”
Woods wasn’t thinking about the Masters when his comeback season officially began last year at this tournament. Maybe it was somewhere in the back of his mind, but the priority at that point was just making it through the week healthy. If it went alright, he’d start thinking about where to play in Florida and take it one start at a time.
Now he knows he’s qualified for all the big tournaments, his equipment is where he wants it and he can start the new year with more of a big-picture approach when he tees off for his first round of 2019 at 1:40 p.m. EST Thursday with Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau.
“I get to build my schedule around that and not have the uncertainty,” said Woods, who won’t match last year’s total of 18 starts. “There have been a number of years where I’ve only played 15-17 events. If I play well in the big events and win some here and there, that will take care of itself.”
This is always a big event for Woods thanks to his history here. Expectations are always sky-high because of it.
Thousands of screaming fans will arrive soon and calm, quiet mornings will be few and far between in the coming months.
The offseason is over and a foundation is in place. With no uncertainty and no confusion about the task at hand, Woods is finally back in business.