SAN DIEGO — A round of 72 is typically nothing to get excited about for Tiger Woods. But considering he’s rarely had a scorecard in his hand to record anything of significance over the past two and a half years, even he would deem his opening-round effort Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open a success.
Playing his first official tournament in a year and making just his fifth worldwide start in the past 14 months, Woods made three birdies and three bogeys on the South course at Torrey Pines — eight shots behind leader Tony Finau but in position to make the 36-hole cut.
Considering he has not done that in an official event since the 2015 Wyndam Championship, that would be a solid accomplishment as he attempts to return from his fourth back surgery, a spinal fusion he had in April.
“It was fun; fun to be able to compete again,” Woods said. “It was to be out there. … I was probably a little bit rusty.”
Woods, 42, is tied for 84th place. The top 70 players and ties make the cut and advance to the weekend. He will play the North course on Friday, which played just slightly easier than the South in the opening round.
The highlight was a near ace at the par-3 16th, a 6-iron shot from 189 yards that rolled up just short of the hole and stopped 8 inches away for a tap-in birdie, his third of the day.
That got Woods back to even par for the day after he was 2 over through five holes.
“It was monstrous into the wind,” said Patrick Reed of Woods’ tee shot at the hole. “He was able to penetrate it through the wind at that height, and to be able to land it that soft and hit it a foot … that thing came out like a pitching wedge. It went vertical.”
Reed, who has developed a bit of a bond with Woods since the 14-time major champion mentored him at the 2016 Ryder Cup, was keenly aware of what was happening.
“There were some things out there that were pretty cool to see,” said Reed, who was grouped with Woods and Charley Hoffman for the first two rounds. “He hit a high, tight draw driver. He hit that low cut that went miles. Some of those cuts he hit off the tee today were insanely long. You’re thinking a cut isn’t supposed to go that far. He’s hitting a flat cut out there 30 yards past your driver and you’re like, all right. …”
Woods hit eight of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens but made only 34 feet of putts — which is the fourth worst of his career in the ShotLink era that dates to 2002. The longest putt Woods made was 4 feet.
“I’ve got to hit my irons a little bit better than I did today,” he said. “I didn’t hit them very close. I didn’t give myself a lot of looks, and then it’s hard to make a lot of birdies when you’re not giving yourself any looks. I didn’t do that today. So tomorrow hopefully I drive it a little bit better, hit my irons a lot closer, and we’ve got the better of two greens tomorrow so we’ll see what happens.”
Woods, who was making his first official start since withdrawing from a European Tour event in Dubai last February, has long loved Torrey Pines, going back to his childhood when he attended his first PGA Tour event here with his father, Earl. He also won a junior event at Torrey Pines at age 15.
A winner of 79 PGA Tour events, Woods had an 11-year stretch at this tournament during which he did not finish worse than 10th and had six victories. He has eight professional victories here, including the 2008 U.S. Open.
But after four back surgeries — including a spinal fusion in April that kept him from swinging a golf club for six months — there are no longer any guarantees. This is just his 21st worldwide start since the first of those back surgeries in March 2014.
And despite a successful return to competition at the unofficial Hero World Challenge last month, Torrey Pines was always going to be a more difficult encounter.
Torrey is a considerably tougher test than Albany in the Bahamas, where Woods tied for ninth and shot three rounds in the 60s. There, the fairways were wide, the rough nonexistent. Here, not only are the fairways far more narrow, but they are bordered by deep rough that has become more prominent at this tournament in recent years.
“The Bahamas you can hit it hard and flight it,” Reed said. “Here, not only do you have to hit it high or low but you have to hit it straight. I thought he looked pretty good, especially for coming back to a place like this. It’s tough. Starting on the South course, it doesn’t get any harder than that. I thought he looked solid and played pretty smart.”
As is often the case, Woods missed the first fairway — he double-bogeyed the first hole on the South course three times during his 2008 U.S. Open victory — leading to one of his three bogeys.
“Hopefully one day I’ll be able to play that first hole well,” he said
He added another bogey at the fifth hole when he couldn’t get up and down from a greenside bunker, then registered his first birdie of the year with a nice drive at the par-5 sixth, followed by a long iron shot to the green and two putts.
A close approach at the 10th got him back to even, but Woods couldn’t handle a 97-yard wedge shot at the par-5 13th, missing into a bunker from where he could not save par. His close call for a hole-in-one at the par-3 16th — he’s not had an ace on the PGA Tour since 1998 — got him back to even par for the round.
Last year, Woods opened the tournament with a 76, then followed with a 72 to miss the cut by four strokes, which came at even par.
“I didn’t think there were going to be that many good scores out there,” he said. “I mean I’m in over 80th place and shot even par. There was no wind out there to actually kind of give us any trouble.”