SAN DIEGO -- It was just a single tournament, but given all the positive vibes coming off his return to competition at the Hero World Challenge, there was considerable interest in how Tiger Woods would fare in his first PGA Tour event in a year at the Farmers Insurance Open. After rounds of 72-71-70-72 and a tie for 23rd at Torrey Pines, here are a few observations.
1. Tiger appears in a good place. There were several moments of self-deprecation, including when he told CBS' Dottie Pepper after the third round that he thought it was "gross,'' and later acknowledged that if his short game were not so strong "it would have been snowing on me,'' a reference to shooting in the 80s. Woods made the rare admission before the tournament that "my expectations have tempered a little bit because I haven't played.'' And that is the proper attitude to take, because after so much time away -- now just five tournament starts in two-and-a-half years -- this was never going to be easy. Perhaps a week like this will help throttle back expectations. The fact that Woods has been listed as 20-1 to win the Masters -- where he hasn't played since 2015 -- is a bit silly. Only Dustin Johnson (8-1), Jordan Spieth (8-1) and Rory McIlroy (10-1) are lower. Woods should never be discounted at Augusta National, but he has a lot of ground to make up in two months.
2. The man still knows how to grind. Tiger clearly didn't have it on Friday when he was fighting to make the cut. But he battled. After playing his first nine holes without a birdie, tee shots flying everywhere but the fairway, he managed to make four birdies on his final nine holes, including a tense two-putt birdie from 90 feet at the par-5 ninth where he hit the green with a 195-yard second shot from the rough. That gave him a 71 and he made the cut on the number. Saturday wasn't much better as Woods struggled with his tee shots again, hitting just three fairways for the round and only one over his final nine holes. And yet he managed to shoot 2-under-par and actually move up the leaderboard. One of the reasons Woods has missed just 17 cuts worldwide in his career has been due to that determination. "I'm very happy with the way I was able to fight out the scores,'' he said. "There were tough, tough scores. I had to fight for each and every one, and that's very pleasing. I can grind it out with the best of them.'' In the end, Woods missed a playoff by seven strokes. And he beat the likes of Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson.
3. The driver clearly needs work, but Woods was surprisingly good off the tee at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, hitting 65 percent of the fairways -- although they were considerably wider than at Torrey Pines and had virtually no rough to worry about. Still, the driving display at Torrey Pines was a mild surprise given that success. Nobody expected him to hit a high number of fairways, but to hit just 17 of 54 (30 percent) was historically bad for Woods. It was the worst in his career and three less than his previous worst showing of 20 at the 2004 Tour Championship. Some of it can be explained with testing new equipment. Woods switched from TaylorMade's M2 driver after the Bahamas to the M3, a club he tested for the last month. He put it down to his swing and not his club, however. Woods admitted he needs a combination of practice and tournament play to work it out. "Unfortunately it's both because game-time speed is very different than hometown speed,'' he said. "These are some of the narrowest fairways on the whole tour, so I don't have my best stuff, and on top of that it's windy, which just compounded it. It made it very difficult for me anyways. I don't know about the rest of the guys, but it was tough for me.'' Still, he had no trouble getting the ball out there. For the week, Woods averaged 303 yards off the tee. Twice on Sunday he hit tee shots in excess of 350 yards. He ranked 16th in the field in driving distance for the week.
4. The short game was a surprise. Given how many fairways and greens Woods missed, being able to shoot under par for the tournament was nothing short of impressive. He was tied for last in the field in driving accuracy and he hit just 42 of 72 greens in regulation. That he was able to get up and down 19 of the 30 times he missed was an indication of the strength of that part of his game. Woods clearly put the time in working on it, and he said that was a product of the pain having subsided after his spinal fusion surgery. "I don't have burning pain down my leg, my leg's not shaking, my foot's working,'' he said. "Actually when I tell it to walk, it can actually walk. I was struggling and it was not fun. People don't realize, the shots that hurt the most were putts and the chips because I was the most bent over. ... I just hate hitting little short shots because it just hurt.''
5. Fans -- and players -- still love him. It is no surprise that that biggest crowds were with Woods all week, especially on the weekend when they grew in size. Gold Channel reported a big jump in ratings for its early-round coverage of the event. And players were taking note, too. "I'm always impressed when I play with him,'' said Patrick Reed, who was grouped with Woods during the first two rounds. "Even when he hits poor shots, he figures a way to get it around the hole and get it done. It was cool to see him fight.'' Said Brandt Snedeker, who played with Woods on Saturday: "I think we're all kind of happy with his progress. His short game is probably as good or better than I ever remember it being. The long game is there. As anybody out there will tell you, you need reps. You need real-time speed and real-time thought process to kind of get over those nerves.'' When Woods rolled in a birdie putt at the 13th hole on Saturday, the clamor and cheering sounded like it was the back nine of a major on Sunday. It was Woods' fourth hole of the day and he was 9 shots back of the leaders. "I haven't had people yelling like that in awhile,'' Woods said.
6. Tiger needs to play. He basically said it himself: Tournament golf is a lot different than playing at home. So Woods needs to play tournaments. And this is his dilemma. What is too much? What is not enough? Right now, Woods has not committed beyond the Genesis Open in two weeks. He is expected to play the Honda Classic the following week and then the Arnold Palmer Invitational the following week. Is that enough tournament golf to prepare for the Masters? Should that even be a consideration at this point, given how far removed from the competitive landscape he has been for the past two years? If you tried to plot out a regular schedule for Woods that included the major championships, he's looking at playing just 12 or 13 tournaments before the FedEx Cup playoffs. Should he play more? "We want to see how I swing after one tournament, go back home, kind of reassess where I'm at and keep doing that,'' he said. "These are things that I honestly can't tell you, 'Yeah, I'm going to play five tournaments in a row.' I don't know what my body can do yet, I'm still learning it.''