SAN DIEGO – Ninety feet of lightning-quick putting surface stood between Tiger Woods and two appointed rounds on the weekend at Torrey Pines.
He was on his last hole in Friday’s second round of the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament he’s won a record seven times. But this time around, in his first tournament on the PGA Tour in a year and just his second in 2½ years, the former world No. 1 was on the tail end of a long grind under sunshine just to make the cut.
So there he was on the ninth hole of the North Course, a par 5 of 556 yards that he had reached in two, facing an eagle putt of 30 yards. Woods had to at least get down in two putts to make the cut on the number and give himself two more rounds of competition in his latest comeback from back surgery.
He almost made the putt.
The ball tracked the hole from the start and wound up just 10 inches short, producing one of the most important tap-in he’s had in years. After starting sluggishly on the 10th hole, Woods birdied three of his final five holes to make the cut.
“It's nice to get out there and compete and play,” said Woods, who had spinal fusion surgery last April and said he’s as healthy as he’s been in years. “I'm still getting used to my feels, but that just takes more time under the fire. I still need more rounds under my belt. To learn how far certain shots are going, what my swing feels are going to be for certain shots, certain trajectories, those are all things a lot of these guys have already built in because they've been playing. I'm just starting out.”
Woods signed for a 1-under-71 to move to 1 under through 36 holes. He will start Saturday’s third round — the tournament moves to the South Course for the final two days — 10 shots behind of the pace-setting lead of Ryan Palmer.
But the world’s 647th-ranked player will at least get to tee it up again here at this seaside resort. With the clutch birdie at the last, Woods made the cut in this event for the first time since 2013, when he captured the last of his seven Farmers titles. And it was the first cut he’s made on the PGA Tour since the Wyndham Championships in August 2015.
“This is a different body and that's why I'm excited to play the weekend, to continue getting used to my feels because they are different,” Woods said. “I can play golf at home and hit certain shots, but to come out here in competition and my adrenaline goes up a little bit, it’s different.
“ … There are many things that I'm going to have to learn and I need more time under the fire of competition.”
He got a taste of that fire in his soft return to competitive golf in December at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, where he finished in a tie for ninth in an 18-man field. But the course was much easier, the test much less stressful and the field wasn’t 156-deep as it is here by the Pacific Ocean.
Woods knew that and he prepared, playing and practicing daily the past three weeks. And so far, after 36 holes, Woods is pleased with his short game. He needed just 23 putts Friday, and with pitches, chips and flops, he saved shots and par on numerous occasions.
But Woods knows he has to start driving the ball better — he hit just three of 14 fairways in regulation in the second round. He knows he has to sharpen his iron play — “It's hard to make everything drop when most of my putts are from 40 feet on,” he said. And he has to get used to play five hours rounds, where you hit a shot, wait, hit another shot, wait some more. That can be taxing, both mentally and physically.
“When I'm at home I'm buzzing through with a cart and playing my home course so it's a little bit different,” Woods said. “These guys are all going low and I haven't done that in a long time. I haven't played the Tour in a while and I'm looking forward to just kind of progressing, just keep playing, keep playing tournaments, keep grinding and get everything kind of situated heading into April.”
For Woods, April means the Masters. And it’s important that he will start that journey with four rounds instead of two.