HARTFORD, Conn. – Tiger Woods begins his quest for a record 83rd PGA Tour on Thursday in another unique situation.
Woods’ playing partners in the first two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open are Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa, one of four leading collegiate players in the country to receive a sponsors’ exemption into the Travelers Championship last year. It’s the first time that Woods, who turned 44 on Dec. 30, is paired with someone who wasn’t born when he made his professional debut in the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1996. Morikawa, who locked up a PGA Tour membership for 2019-2020 in only four starts and then won the Barracuda Championship, was born in 1997.
Wood is trying to pass Sam Snead for most PGA Tour victories on one of three courses where he has won a record-tying eight times, Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif. He captured the Farmers Insurance Open seven times and the 2008 U.S. Open in a memorable sudden-death playoff with Rocco Mediate when he had a partially broken leg that needed surgery soon after the win. Woods has also won eight times at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla. (Arnold Palmer Invitational) and Firestone Country Club’s South Course in Akron, Ohio (World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational). Snead is the only other player to have as much success at one place, having captured the Greater Greensboro Open eight times, the last when he was just shy of 53 in 1965, and he remains the oldest PGA Tour winner.
Woods, ranked No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is facing plenty of top-flight competition from six more of the Top 15 players in the world: Rory McIlroy (2), Rahm (3), defending champion Justin Rose (8), Xander Schaufflele (9), Patrick Reed (12) and reigning U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland (15). Past titlists in the field include Phil Mickelson, who has won 18 times in his native California, Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Nick Watney, Brandt Snedeker and Scott Stallings. Other notables include 2019-2020 season winners Joaquin Niemann, Sebastian Munoz, Cameron Champ, Lanto Griffin and Cameron Smith, as well as Tony Finau, Rickie Fowler and former Travelers Championship winners Marc Leishman and Jordan Spieth, who is shooting for his first victory since the 2017 British Open in his first PGA Tour start in nearly three months.
A victory would not only allow Woods to break the wins tie with Snead, but it also would give him a PGA Tour victory in four decades, something achieved by only Snead, Raymond Floyd and Davis Love III. If Woods needs motivation on that front, he need only look to 46-year-old Lee Westwood, a longtime rival and winner of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Sunday who has now won European Tour events in four decades.
Such longevity for Woods didn’t seem possible five years ago at Torrey Pines when he withdrew on his 12th hole of the first round because of a back problem one week after shooting 82 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. It was the start of basically three seasons lost to injury that gave his caddie, Newtown native Joe LaCava, a lot more time to spend with his wife and two children, play more golf and attend more New York Rangers, New York Giants and University of Connecticut games. The future existence of Woods’ golf game, much less its quality, was in serious jeopardy, and when he underwent spinal fusion in April 2017, the procedure was an attempt to relieve debilitating conditions that included having difficulty walking, sleeping and lifting his arms.
What has transpired since that surgery – and inpatient treatment for issues with prescription pain medication that resulted in an arrest on a charge of driving under the influence – is a comeback that has surprised virtually everyone, including Woods himself. But victories in the season-ending 2018 Tour Championship and the 2019 Masters and ZOZO Championship to tie Snead and get within three major titles of all-time leader Jack Nicklaus’ 18 silenced all the doubters and enabled him to turn despair into joy and Tigermania 2.0.
“These are blessed opportunities,” Woods said Tuesday at his pre-tournament press conference. “I didn’t think I would have these.”
Woods’ long-range goals include defending his Masters title April 9-12 at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, earning a spot in the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, on July 30-Aug. 2 and playing on another U.S. Ryder Cup team Sept. 25-27 at Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisc. He was the playing captain of the victorious American team in the Presidents Cup in December at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Victoria, Australia, where he won two team matches with Justin Thomas and his singles against Abraham Ancer.
But, as usual, Woods is only thinking in the present, especially since he’s using new woods this week on a course that is about a 90-minute drive from Cypress High School, his alma mater.
“I really don’t think about (83 wins) because I have to think about all of the things that I need to do to win the tournament,” said Woods, who has captured three of his last 16 worldwide starts. “There’s so many different shots I have to play and strategy and thinking my way around the golf course that I’m more consumed with.”
After the Presidents Cup victory, Woods played only once until last week, on his birthday with his 10-year-old son, Charlie. It was a round that he called great and was reminiscent of the times that he played on his birthday with his late father, Earl. Then early in the new year, Woods started working in earnest for his 2020 debut, testing the new TaylorMade SIM driver and the latest golf ball developed by Bridgestone.
“I feel like I ended the year on a good note, and I felt like my game really didn’t need a whole lot of kind of dusting,” Woods said. “But I am putting some new woods in play, so I’m going to have to have to do the testing, making sure they’re ready to go. If not, I’ll go back to old faithful.”
Regardless of how the new driver and golf ball work out, Woods is closer to the World Golf Hall of Fame, which on Tuesday announced it has reduced the minimum age for induction from 50 to 45 years old, starting with the 2021 class. A player will be eligible for induction provided he or she turns 45 the year of the induction ceremony or is retired for at least three years. Woods would turn 45 in December of 2021, which is only four years after the minimum age for induction was increased from 40 to 50 years old after the inductions of notable players such as Mickelson and Vijay Singh, who were 42 and 43, respectively.
“Recognizing the game’s greatest players and contributors is an important endeavor and one our sport takes very seriously,” said World Golf Foundation Board Chairman and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, a Trinity College grad. “We are committed to regularly evaluating the selection process to ensure we approach it with both historical context and the future in mind.”
Count Tiger among the inductees in 2021.