Golf

Torrey Pines a cornerstone for Tiger

Image: Tiger Woods (©John Bazemore/AP Images)
Tiger Woods is making only his second visit to Torrey Pines since the 2008 US Open.
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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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Time was, if Tiger Woods stuck a peg in the ground at Torrey Pines, everyone else was playing for second.

He knew it, and they knew it, too.

Woods has won seven times — including, most famously, the 2008 US Open — on this scenic muni cut into the San Diego bluffs over the Pacific Ocean. Starting in 2005, he won five straight starts here, culminating with that 14th major, claimed heroically on one good leg.

More important, winning at Torrey Pines set the tone for in each of those years for Woods, who won 25 times in that four-year span.

“Torrey was always a tournament that I thought was the most important of the year for Tiger,” says his former coach, Hank Haney. “He talks a lot about momentum, and a good start to the year always gave him the momentum he wanted. Tiger won at Torrey every time that he played there while I helped him.”

Torrey Pines isn’t just a layout that, in Woods-speak “fits my eye” — like Firestone or Bay Hill or Augusta National or even Muirfield Village — but a place that holds an almost spiritual place in the Tiger lore.

It was here where his late father, Earl, brought him as a boy to watch the pros and where he told him that one day, if he was good enough, he’d bring him to play.

NO RELIEF

An improper drop results in a penalty for Tiger Woods, who misses the cut at Abu Dhabi.

“Torrey Pines is a very special place to me,” Woods wrote in a 2011 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.”

For a variety of reasons — scandal, injury and, last year, the lure of petro-dollars in the Middle East — Woods has been back only once since the 2008 Open.

In 2011, he opened his PGA Tour season at the Farmers Insurance Open but, after a promising start, faded over the final 45 holes to finish in a tie for 44th — the only time in 13 starts he has finished outside the top 10 in this event.

On Thursday, he opens his US season at Torrey Pines again, but with perhaps more on the line than ever before.

If Woods is to ever reclaim his status as golf’s most dominant force — and that’s far from certain — that evolution needs to start somewhere. What better place than Torrey Pines?

“I agree,” says Haney, “This year is it for Tiger for many reasons.”

TAXING ISSUE

After talking taxes, Phil Mickelson apologizes and says he should have kept thoughts private.

For Tiger, 2013 is a pivotal season in his career because there really are no excuses left: Woods has had 2-1/2 years to get in the “reps” with instructor Sean Foley, to get adjusted to life as a divorced father of two. And he is, by his own admission, injury-free.

“It's nice to be healthy to be able to train and practice and do all of the things that I know I can do. It's definitely a very different feeling, so it's nice to be back,” Woods said Tuesday at his pre-tournament press conference.

All that’s left then is for Woods to make a statement and show that, at 37, he is on his way back. Because last week’s season debut in Abu Dhabi showed anything but.

Although much was made of the two-shot penalty he incurred for taking an incorrect drop, it was hardly the reason he missed the cut. A sharp short game masked many problems, especially off the tee, where Woods found only 11 of 28 fairways.

Truth is, he didn’t look prepared, which, according to Haney, has been a problem with Woods dating back to 2007. That when, Haney says, he noticed a drop-off in work rate.

That is, perhaps, understandable given that it was always unlikely a child prodigy wouldn’t discover at some point that there are other things in life outside of golf.

But if Woods wants to get back to the top of the mountain, he won’t get there as a dilettante.

Starting with world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, there are just too many good players now for Woods to overcome without something approaching his A-game.

CO-STARS

Nike wastes no time putting Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods together in a new ad.

“Each generation, it gets a little more difficult,” Woods acknowledged on Tuesday. “You have more guys going into a weekend with a chance to win, and they are. They can win from anyplace. The gap's gotten smaller, in that regard.”

And so has his window to get to the only mark that really matters to Woods: eclipsing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

Some will say he already has begun his trek, pointing to his three wins last year. And there’s an element of truth to that, but last year also revealed a new fragility to Woods.

He crumbled on the weekends at the year’s final three majors.

A Woods’ confidante, John Cook, had an interesting response to GolfWorld magazine when he was asked whether Woods choked.

“Why do you choke? Because you don't have real trust in what you're doing,” he said. “Well, he does now.

“[2012] was getting back to winning, but [this] year, it's statement time.”

Yes, it is.

“Especially after missing the cut at Abu Dhabi, this week at Torrey takes on added importance,” Haney says. “If Tiger is going to have the year he expects, it will start with a win this week at Torrey.”

Tagged: Tiger Woods

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