Golf

Torrey a perfect place for Tiger comeback

Tiger Woods (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods: 'Torrey Pines is a very special place to me.'
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ask Tiger Woods who’d be in his dream foursome if he could play just one more round of golf and he’ll tell you it’d be just a two-ball.

Just him and his Pops, Tiger and Earl, the way they used to be.

And they’d be at Torrey Pines.

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The famous San Diego muni course cut into the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean looms large in the Woods family lore, and not only because it’s been the canvas for eight of Tiger’s professional wins, including, most famously, the 2008 U.S. Open on one good leg.

“Torrey Pines is a very special place to me,” Woods told FOXSports.com in an email.

“It’s a place my Pop took me to watch golf, and it’s a course that we later played often together.

“I think of my Pop every day, but I have very distinct memories here.”

What better place, then, for the now world No. 3 to make his season debut than at next week’s Farmers Insurance Open?

Be sure that Woods knows the importance of next week.

Golf’s fallen star needs both a fresh start and a quick start; to open his season with a bang so he can put the annus horribilis of 2010 behind him.

But can he?

Coming off the only winless season of his career, can he begin to reclaim his place at the top of the sport, or is the Tiger era already over?

Certainly, his fellow professionals aren’t convinced he’ll be able to dominate the game in the way he did for more than a decade.

“I think his shield of invincibility has been dissolved,” Scott Verplank said in November.

Privately, other players have said worse.

But those closest to Woods warn against bringing down the curtain so quickly.

“Writing him off is the craziest thing I’ve heard,” said Sean Foley, who has been coaching Woods since August.

“Here’s a guy who’s won 14 majors, who’s won three U.S. Ams and three U.S. Juniors, who’s won (71) tour events and who knows how many other tournaments around the world and he plays bad for eight months and people are writing him off?

“What kind of a society is this?

“Look, maybe he doesn’t play as good as he did in 2000 ever again, but maybe no one will ever play like that again.”

Foley has been ever-present at the Isleworth driving range near Orlando since Woods finished second at the Chevron World Challenge in early December.

He’s very happy with what he’s seeing.

“I don’t anticipate anything different (at Torrey Pines) from what I’ve been observing on the range, and that is that he’ll be very, very good,” Foley said.

“Now, I know people don’t think he’s human, but he is, so will there be some tournament rust? Maybe, who knows, but as far as physically, the way he’s swinging, I’m very confident.

“He’s hitting the ball much cleaner, with less curves. His lines are better and his misses are starting to be much straighter.”

Foley said that the fact that Woods capitulated in the final round at Chevron, coughing up a four-shot lead, wasn’t as damaging as it seemed because he was still learning to trust his new swing under pressure.

“What I remember about that final round is that when Tiger really needed to hit the shots, on 18 and again in the playoff, he hit them,” he said.

“What you had was Graeme (MacDowell) capping off a Cinderella story of a year by making back-to-back 30-footers. I mean, how often is that going to happen?”

But is simply a better grasp of Foley’s swing going to be enough for Woods?

A good part of why he struggled so much last year was because his head — and his heart — just weren’t in the game; understandably, perhaps, given the turmoil in his private life.

I asked Foley whether he felt Woods was more at peace now that he’s settling into life as a divorced father of two young children.

“It’s hard for me to say because I didn’t really know him two years ago, or five years ago, so I don’t know what to compare it to, but I can say that I see him pretty much every morning at the gym and, to me, he’s quite jovial.

“And when we’re on the range, we always have a good time. Other than that, I can see he’s really enjoying being a dad.

“There are times when we’re on the range, working, and his kids come running out and he looks at me and says, ‘OK, bro, you can go now,' even though we’ve only been working for half an hour.

“So I can see his priorities aren’t always golf, which I think in a way might make him a better golfer.”

Caddie Steve Williams, meanwhile, is looking forward to returning to Torrey Pines for the first time since the 2008 U.S. Open.

“Being back there, at a course he loves and that means so much to him, it’s the perfect place to start the new year,” he said.

Williams, who’s been in New Zealand, hasn’t seen Woods for almost seven weeks, but the two have exchanged several phone calls.

“I can tell you he’s motivated. He took a lot of pride in where he’d gotten in golf and he’s determined to get back to the top,” he said.

But can he? Can he recreate that old Woods aura, the one that melted opponents on Sunday afternoons?

“For other players to have fear, or be intimidated, in order to achieve that, you have to get back to winning and you have to play spectacular golf on Sundays coming down the stretch,” Williams said.

“Tiger did that for a lot of years. The challenge now is to go and do it again.”

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