New year, new Tiger Woods.
Or at least a refreshed Woods looking to begin this season as he finished his last, when he clinched the Tour Championship to cap a remarkable comeback.
This time last year Woods was beginning his tentative return to the PGA Tour following spinal fusion surgery, not knowing where or how far his journey — and his ailing body — would take him.
But Woods, who turned 43 on December 30, defied expectations and did a passable impression of the player who dominated golf for more than a decade and bagged 14 majors in the process. He will tee it up at Torrey Pines Thursday as one of the favorites having risen from 656th in the world at the start of 2018 to 13th in the rankings.
“I know what I can do, I know what I’m feeling, so now it’s about finishing a little bit better and winning some events this year,” Woods told reporters in California.
His impressive season included a tied sixth in the Open at Carnoustie after briefly leading into the final nine holes, and second behind Brooks Koepka in the US PGA. Victory in the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta took Woods to 80 PGA Tour titles, two behind the record of fellow American Sam Snead.
He makes his season debut in the Farmers Insurance Open, an event he has won seven times in his career. He also clinched the 2008 US Open at the San Diego venue for the last of his 14 majors.
“Last year was very fluid,” Woods added. “It was like trying to hit a moving target last year and it was quite interesting to try to figure it all out as the year progressed and it evolved.”
More wins? A major?
Predicting how Woods will fare has once again become one of the major pastimes of golf watchers.
Woods’ close friend Notah Begay, a former PGA Tour player, told CNN a 15th major “is not out of the realms of possibility,” while his former coach Hank Haney told ESPN that getting back to world No.1 “is there to be had.”
Renowned American golf writer Alan Shipnuck predicts Woods will add to his Tour titles this season, but stopped short of awarding him a major victory.
“For Tiger to win a major would feel a little too tidy,” he wrote on Golf.com. “It’s been a decade of almighty struggle for him. I think the exquisite torture continues for at least one more year.”
Then again, ESPN’s Bob Harig suggests he will triumph in this year’s US Open at Pebble Beach, site of his legendary 15-shot victory in 2000. His colleague Michael Collins, however, thinks Woods will win “zero” majors.
Most observers agree putting, once his most potent weapon, is now his biggest weakness.
One thing is clear — everyone has a view.
But the history books record that only 10 players have won a major at the age of 43 or older, since the Masters era began in 1934.
Nerves and emotion
The scene of thousands of fans streaming after Woods as he sealed the Tour Championship for his first win in five years following multiple back surgeries was reminiscent of the clamor which surrounded him in his heyday in the early 2000s.
Afterwards, Woods flew straight to Paris, France for the Ryder Cup and wasn’t able to take it all in until returning home.
“I got a chance to be around my friends and my family, to hear some of the stories of how nervous they were and how emotional they were,” he said.
“Players, friends, people who saw what I went through, saw the difficult times and saw I made it that far back, that was touching to me because I didn’t expect that. I’m inside the ropes so I knew what it took for me but I didn’t know it would have affected anyone else like that.”
Despite the highs of East Lake, Woods appeared tired and out-of-sorts at the Ryder Cup and lost all four of his matches as Europe sealed a triumphant win.
The former world No.1 says he hadn’t foreseen his form being good enough to get into the end-of-season events and hadn’t trained enough, but insists he has been working hard in the gym since September.
“This off-season I spent a lot of time in the gym and I’ve gotten a lot stronger and feel like my legs are there where they need to be, which they weren’t at the end of the season,” he said.