He’s back! This time for real.
At this stage in proceedings the world has every right to sigh and divert its gaze elsewhere as Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour promising he has never felt fitter; that he is ready to take on the generation of golfers he inspired to take up the game.
After all, we’ve been here before – (is this resurrection number three or four? Who can remember at this stage?) – and each time we’ve been left to the cold, harsh embrace of disappointment. And yet…
This is Tiger Woods we’re talking about here.
Those who have been around long enough are well able to catalogue the ludicrous, reality-defying genius of the 42-year-old American in his glory days and the achievements it brought his way. A few of those landmark moments occurred at Torrey Pines, the San Diego venue which will host this week’s State Farm Insurance Championship.
The golf records show Woods won his most recent major (for now) at Torrey, the 2008 US Open. The medical records show he won that week with a broken leg. He won again at Torrey in 2013, post-scandal, his eighth victory around this course. You could say he likes the place. A lot.
Yet it was also the scene of one of his most abject comeback performances, in 2015, when he pulled on during the opening round, famously citing “deactivated glutes”. How the world laughed back then.
And how Woods would like to ram lay that mockery to rest now.
He showed up to practise this week with two perfectly healthy legs and, more to point, an apparently healthy body.
“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” said Bryson DeChambeau, who played a practise round with Woods on Tuesday. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”
Jason Day, the other member of the three-ball, concurred. “I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight ways. The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”
It hard to believe that Woods’ fellow players would be anything less than complimentary but, equally, it is hard to deny the evidence we have so far. Last month’s Hero World Challenge wasn’t much more than a holiday hit-and-giggle but there is no question that, as Day says, Woods has the kind of speed and power he lacked in previous comebacks.
He finished ninth in the Bahamas in what was a pretty strong field of 18 players.
But Torrey presents an altogether more formidable challenge. It is longer and tougher than what he faced in the Caribbean and, despite its California postcode, San Diego in January can be chilly and damp. Woods might have an historic love for the place, but the chances are it won’t do him any favours for old time’s sake. If his game has flaws, they will be revealed. If is body is anything less than 100%, it deficiencies will exposed as if by X-ray.
Against that backdrop, it seems almost ludicrous to ask if Woods could win.
Perhaps a better question might be, can he contend? Better still, from a punter’s point of view – can he make the cut?
The answer to that final query seems clear, at least to many seasoned observers: fill your boots.
As for potential winners – as ever in the modern era of the PGA Tour, there are almost too many names to choose from. Browse through Thursday’s tee-sheet and the names of Rickie Fowler, who looked streets ahead of the field in winning the Hero last month, and Justin Thomas, a major champion and the stand-out player of the 2017 PGA Tour season, immediately catch the eye.
The newly-minted world no.2 ranked player Jon Rahm, who won this tournament last and who triumphed again at Palm Springs last weekend, is the obvious choice, albeit that back-to-back winners are a rare breed in this brutally competitive era.
Rahm may be the man of the moment, but it’s hard to see his his particular lightning striking twice in two weeks.
No, for a winner – and a little more value – look instead just a tiny bit further down the rankings to a player such as Justin Rose, who may not be Europe’s most glamorously appealing golfer, but could well be its best golfer. He had a top five finish at Torrey Pines and could go the whole way come Sunday afternoon.
For anyone inclined towards a little home cooking, there is Patrick Cantlay, who won in Las Vegas at the end of 2017 and who will – mark my words – be the next big American star to rank alongside Tiger and Justin Thomas.