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  • Eleven years, four back procedures and zero major wins later, Tiger Woods begins his 2019 season at the same course he won his last major. What can we expect from Tiger at Torrey?
By Daniel Rapaport
January 21, 2019

Tiger Woods will make his 2019 PGA Tour debut on Thursday when he plays the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Eleven years and four back procedures later, Woods returns to the same golf course he limped around to earn arguably the signature win of entire career (the 2008 U.S. Open) with a fused spine, a 43-year-old body and the same number of major championships.

The above sentence sounds rather morbid when read aloud, and it would suggest the mood surrounding Woods and his camp is one of pessimism—but that isn't the case. The good vibes have carried over from Tiger's 2018 season, which was nothing short of a miraculous revelation: He successfully completed (no withdrawals) 18 official events; He notched seven top-10s; He picked up his 80th PGA Tour win and nearly claimed the FedEx Cup in the process; He had as many legitimate chances to win a major—two—as he did missed cuts.

A nice thing about annual golf tournaments is that they serve as markers in time. It’s not exactly apples to apples, but stick with me here. You remember where you were on your birthday, on New Years, on Christmas. Golfers remember what the state of their games were at specific events and particular courses that, for whatever reason, remain fresh in their minds. Given Tiger’s rich and well-documented history at Torrey Pines—eight victories as a professional, not to mention his triumph in the 1991 Junior Worlds as a 15-year-old—one would think any visit there sticks out in his memory. Twenty years ago, in 1999, he arrived there as the world’s top-ranked player, a 23-year-old who was about to rip off the most lucratively dominant tear the sport has ever seen. He won that week, the first of…wait for it…17 Tour wins over two seasons, including four majors. At the U.S. Open in 2008, he arrived with a ruptured right anterior cruciate ligament and two stress fractures in his left tibia, determined nonetheless to win the first U.S. Open at a course so dear to his heart.

Last year, he showed up to La Jolla excited about the speed he was able to produce but rightfully unsure about a pieced-together, shaky golf swing that was still a work in progress. He was about to make his first official PGA Tour start since that fusion surgery, and no one—not even Woods—knew what the year ahead had in store. Fast forward 12 months and Woods is back at his familiar stomping grounds as the No. 13 player in the world and the oddsmakers’ fourth favorite to win the title. To employ an all-time cliché: What a difference a year makes.

Woods’ comeback was steady, not sudden. First he made a cut, then a top-15, then he had his first real chance to win, then he had his first real chance to win a major, and finally he got back in the winner’s circle at East Lake.  Because the progress was incremental, it almost felt like each successive step was a natural progression. In that sense, the sheer unlikeliness of it all risks being overlooked. But looked at holistically, it truly is hard to believe how different the Tiger Woods narrative of today is than the Tiger Woods narrative of January 2018. 

One question I’m eager to see answered is whether we’ll see Woods’ on-course demeanor match the heightened expectations. For most of last year, Woods carried himself with an amiable lightness that suggested he was overjoyed simply to be competing again. But we know that’s not how peak Tiger Woods operated. At his best, Woods was a cold-blooded competitor who could put the proverbial blinders on with the best of them. Watch footage of him winning any of his majors and you won’t see him crack a smile until the final putt on the 72nd hole drops. We saw a bit of that at the British Open, PGA Championship and Tour Championship—once he realized that he had a realistic chance to win those events, Mr. Nice Guy was replaced by Mr. I’m Going to Win Guy. There was noticeably less banter with playing partners and interaction with fans. That’s how Tiger is when he smells victory.

Now that victory is a realistic expectation rather than a far-off pipe dream. Which Tiger will we see? The 40-something, smiley mayoral figure? Or the laser-focused machine with tunnel vision aimed straight at the trophy?

A storybook, worth-the-wait victory for Adam Long(shot)

The scene was one Adam Long has likely been dreaming of his whole life: He found himself tied for the lead on the 72nd hole of a PGA Tour event, with an uphill, 12-foot, right-to-left birdie putt—every righty’s favorite—to win the tournament by a shot over Phil Frickin’ Mickelson. Then he did exactly what you do in the dream: he buried the putt right in the heart, punctuated it with a fist pump and gave his caddie a bear hug.

Less storybook? His path to that life-changing moment. Long, 31, turned pro way back in 2010 after a solid but unspectacular career at Duke. He would spend the next eight years oscillating between the Web.com, Latinoamerica and Mackenzie Tours, accruing precisely zero wins over that period. His career earnings before Sunday amounted to $585,563, which means he made, on average, $73,195 on the golf course per year. When you factor in the exorbitant expenses professional golf sucks out of you—paying for travel, lodging, caddie, and management shrinks paychecks really quickly—you get a better picture of just how much a grind this process has been for Long.

And it’s not like anyone saw this win coming based off his recent play. Long finished 26th on the Web.com Tour moneylist last year and missed the cut in all four tournament of that tour’s Final Series, the last four events of its season. He started his rookie season on the big boy tour by missing three of four cuts, finishing T63 in the one tournament he played the weekend. Then he shoots 63-71-63-65, the final round a bogey-free masterpiece while playing alongside Mickelson and PGA Tour winner/Presidents Cupper Adam Hadwin.

Sunday’s result was a heartening reminder that—despite the overall sport’s earned reputation as elitist and expensive—professional golf is a meritocracy. Whoever plays better wins, no matter their background or standing within the game or bank account. Mickelson entered that final round with a two-stroke lead and five majors and 43 PGA Tour victories and hundreds of millions of dollars to his name. Long entered with a hot putter and steadfast belief that, despite eight long professional years without a victory of any kind, he could get it done. And he did, and now he gets to tee it up at some golf course in eastern Georgia in three months’ time.

G

What Phil can learn from Roger Federer

Mickelson will rue a missed opportunity, particularly given the way he putted on Sunday, but there are so many positives to take from his week in the desert. He made 10 birdies without a bogey en route to a 12-under 60 on Thursday, the lowest round in relation to par of his illustrious PGA Tour career. His short game looks as sharp as ever. And, perhaps most encouraging for Phil stans, he still has so much speed! At 48, he averaged 318 yards off the tee. He hit the longest drive on the 11th on Sunday of the entire field by seven yards, out-driving all the 20-somethings.

In a word, Phil looked fresh. That’s what a couple months of rest will do for you—it was Mickelson’s first start since the first week of October. I’d posit that Mickelson’s performance this week was no coincidence. He was rested and ready largely because of all that time off. As he approaches the half-century mark, Mickelson would do well to look at another aging legend for inspiration: Roger Federer. As Federer aged, he realized having his body ready to go was paramount if he was to continue competing at an elite level. Thus, he cut back significantly on his schedule, opting to skip the clay court seasons entirely in 2017 and 2018. He wouldn’t have won three more majors had he not limited how often he plays.

Mickelson is in a similar position. When he’s fresh, he obviously still has the game to compete for the sport’s biggest prizes. Last year, Mickelson had a four-tournament stretch of T5-T2-T6-1…all coming before March. By the end of the season he was visibly worn out and his play showed it—remember at the Ryder Cup, when he was basically unplayable? That’s called fatigue. That’s having a 48-year-old body that can’t handle the rigors of a full PGA Tour campaign quite like it used to.  Mickelson typically plays 22-24 events a year; moving forward, a 17-ish tournament slate would give him a better opportunity to contend in the events he does play, as well as added time with his family as an ancillary benefit. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Chip-ins

• “Of all time” has been overused to the point of it being rendered near meaninglessness, but this Jerry Kelly eagle may be the luckiest eagle of all time.

• Rickie Fowler announced he’s signed a deal with TaylorMade to play its TP5 ball. TaylorMade is all-in on its quality-over-quantity sponsorship approach. They’ve downsized their significantly in recent years but have signed some of the game’s biggest stars. Here’s their current roster of endorsers: Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Jason Day and now Rickie Fowler.

• Hosung Choi played in an event televised by Golf Channel this week, which means we were treated to some unbelievable Hosung Choi video clips. My two favorites: this innovative backwards-squat maneuver and the mid-putt twirl.

• My back hurts just watching this:

• Zecheng “Marty Dou” won the Web.com Tour’s Bahamas Great Exuma Classic earlier in the week, which is awesome for the 21-year-old from China. What’s perhaps more noteworthy: this tournament took place on the same island that Fyre Festival was supposed to! 

• Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz won the celebrity portion of the LPGA Tour’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions pro-am, finishing with 149 points in the modified Stableford format. He shot three-under for the week and said he’s going to try to qualify for the Senior U.S. Open again. Eun-Hee Ji won her fifth LPGA Tour event at the same tournament.

• Lucas Glover’s wife Krista entered a deferred prosecution agreement following her May arrest on charges of battery. Remember, she berated Glover for his poor on-course play. Glover said he’s excited to be moving into a “new beginning” with his wife.

• How’s this for a response? When Alvaro Ortiz’s group was put on the clock at the Latin American Amateur Championship, he took matters into his own hands: per Golf Digest, he started playing half a hole ahead of his playing partners to speed things up. He went on to win the event and earn a Masters berth. Fast play does not mean bad play, people. Take notes.

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