SAN DIEGO (AP) — Tiger Woods was walking up the middle of the 18th fairway when he noticed someone walking briskly toward him, causing Woods to stop suddenly.
And then he smiled.
It was Billy Horschel, arms outstretched to embrace Woods.
“It’s good to have you back,” Horschel said.
Oddly enough, they were together at the Farmers Insurance Open the last time Woods was at Torrey Pines, under much different circumstances.
Woods’ game was a mess in early 2015, and on the practice range before the first round, Horschel appeared to be showing Woods different positions in the swing. Woods withdrew later that morning with tightness in his back and walked away from competition for 10 weeks to work on his game until returning at the Masters.
His game never really improved until a tie for 10th in the Wyndham Championship. And then he had two more back surgeries and was gone again.
Now he’s returned, no instruction necessary.
Woods makes his latest PGA Tour comeback on Thursday when he tees it up at Torrey Pines alongside Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, who bring the kind of credentials that for so long only belonged to Woods.
Day is No. 1 in the world (Woods occupied the top spot for a record 683 weeks).
Johnson is the PGA Tour player of the year (Woods won the award a record 11 times).
And now the question is whether Woods can keep up with them.
“You always want to play against and with the best players,” Woods said. “I’m trying to remind myself: ‘Hey, I haven’t played in a while. Hey, it’s just the first two days and get yourself in contention, build your way up.’ It’s not Sunday. I’ve got a long way to go to get to that point where I have a chance to win this event.”
Winning might be a surprise, even given his track record at Torrey Pines.
Woods has eight victories at Torrey Pines, including a major when he won the U.S. Open in 2008 on a shattered left leg. Think about that. What he has done at Torrey Pines alone is more than all but four players in the 156-man field at Torrey Pines have done in their entire PGA Tour careers.
But that was then, before his three back surgeries.
The now is a bit more clouded, and even Woods can’t provide much clarity. He was asked Wednesday if he thought he could return to his level of play from 2013, when his five victories included a four-shot victory at Torrey Pines.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We all know I haven’t played a full schedule in a very long time, so this is an unknown. I’ve been away from it for so long. I’ve played one tournament in that 15-month span and I haven’t played a full-field event. I haven’t got into the rhythm of playing weeks on end in a season.”
Woods has returned nine times from a long layoff over the last 14 years. The first time was in 2003 at Torrey Pines, when he was coming off arthroscopic knee surgery. Back then, the attention wasn’t on his knee. It was on Phil Mickelson’s magazine interview in which Lefty said Woods was using “inferior equipment.”
Woods got in the final word. He won by four shots.
Equipment was an issue again in this return, for different reasons. Woods announced Wednesday morning that he has signed a deal with TaylorMade to use its driver, fairway metals, irons and wedges. He already has a Bridgestone Golf deal to play its ball. He still has a Nike contract to wear the apparel. He’s not getting paid to use his old Scotty Cameron putter, the one he used to win 13 of his majors.
There’s nothing inferior about that putter.
Starting on Thursday, Woods finds out how his game stacks up against the best in the world. His swing looks just as good as it did in the Bahamas the first week of December when he played for the first time in 15 months against an 18-man field with no cut and no stress. He finished 15th, despite making 24 birdies. Woods put even more work into his game over the last seven weeks.
Even so, the measure will be his score in relation to the rest of the field.
Players whom he routinely beat for so long want to see Woods play his best again. So do the younger players, who only saw his best on television and were inspired.
It’s really a strange turn of events best summed up by Padraig Harrington two years ago when he said, “Did you ever think you would hear a professional golfer genuinely and sincerely say, ‘I hope Tiger Woods plays better?’”