Tiger Woods makes his 2019 season debut Thursday at Torrey Pines in southern California, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s about to embark on the most important year of his career.
That’s up for debate, of course – 1997 was a big one, as it saw him win his first major at the Masters and demonstrate in front of the entire world that the hype attending his arrival on the PGA Tour was justified, and then some. The year 2000 has a strong claim as well – it’s the greatest year of individual golf in the modern era (three majors, 10 wins).
And in 2018, Tiger’s most surprising year of all, he proved he could play at a championship level again.
Yet it’s the year 2019 that will chart the course for Tiger’s final act as a professional golfer. He’s 43 now, and only ten men beyond that age have ever won major championships in golf – and none of them have won two. He has lingering back issues, and injuries of that nature are not known to improve with age.
By all rights, he should be riding off into the sunset of his PGA Tour career, perhaps staging the odd Sunday charge here or there, but never rising to anything like his old form.
Then again, this is Tiger Woods. Fair or not, expectations are higher, and he stoked those expectations last season when he finally broke through at the Tour Championship.
There are still some deluded souls out there who believe he can make a run at Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, which would require four more wins from Tiger – a virtual impossibility.
But it’s not unlikely that Tiger himself expects a late run at greatness, and considering his superlative career, it doesn’t seem quite as crazy as it might look on paper.
There is a beacon of hope in at least one modern analogue – Phil Mickelson. Lefty won his last major at 43, just a few months younger than Tiger will be when he tees it up at Augusta in April, and since then he’s notched three second-place finishes.
If Phil can stay routinely competitive into his late 40s against the toughest fields in golf, so can a healthy Tiger Woods.
He has a full year of competitive golf under his belt now, and there’s no more time to waste. Tiger’s success this year will define the next five years to come, and if he plans to attain the dizzying heights of his youth.
It’s put up or shut up time for Woods.
Which is what makes this weekend’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines so fascinating.
Will Tiger hit the ground running? Will he be able to compete against the likes of Rahm, Day, Rose, Rory McIlroy, and Finau? Is he healthy, swinging freely, and ready to channel the old competitive fire?
Or has he transitioned into a latter-day version of the killer in red and black, prepared to make cuts and threaten the odd minor title, but not assert his dominance as in bygone days?
Here’s an understatement: Torrey Pines suits him. There are two courses in play, actually, but those who make the cut will play the south course three times, and it’s by far the more difficult of the two.
With a U.S. Open style setup, it’s a stingy course that yields birdies only grudgingly, and it’s rare to see players go very low in recent years (though Jon Rahm won at -13 two years ago).
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Making matters trickier, the field is always incredibly strong, and the winners tend to be high-profile. Along with Rahm, recent winners include Brandt Snedeker (twice), Jason Day (twice), and Bubba Watson.
That said, the glut of multiple winners at Torrey Pines shows that it rewards in-depth knowledge and specifically suits a handful of chosen players.
That’s terrific news for Tiger, who has won here an astounding seven times.
It may be his single best venue, and that’s saying something. Any time he tees it up at Torrey, he can win.
Along with Tiger, here are three other picks to make your mouth water:
*This market is now live so odds will have changed considerably
It’s not just because he’s won here in the past, though that makes an enormous difference; it’s also that he’s on fire lately, with a victory at the Hero World Challenge and a fourth place finish in Dubai at the close of 2018 leading into terrific showings at the Tournament of Champions and last week’s Desert Classic in the new year.
He’s at the top of his game, eager to prove himself at the majors after two top-five finishes in 2018, and sure to make a huge impact at the site of his first professional victory.
Hot tip: Xander is a San Diego native playing at home this weekend, he’s the FedExCup points leader, and he’s also, in my opinion, on the verge of a huge breakthrough.
Last year he notched top ten finishes at the U.S. Open and Open Championship and won his first WGC event, living up to the promise of his Tour Championship win in 2017. He began this season by winning the Tournament of Champions, and there’s no reason to expect him to cool down now. Take the native son and line your pockets.
Coming off a third place finish last week, it’s clear that Leishman is in his usual excellent winter form.
What’s really impressive, though, are his recent finishes at the Farmers Insurance. In the past decade, he’s posted four top tens, including two runner-up finishes. When he’s playing well, as he clearly is in 2019, he’s as close as you can get in golf to a sure bet at Torrey.
*Prices correct at time of publishing