LA JOLLA, Calif.
Tiger Woods may or may not be back — whatever that means — but throughout the longest of Sundays on the Southern California coast, he was once again the champion he used to be.
Woods played 25 holes at a soggy Torrey Pines in 6-under par and, with 11 holes left in his final round at the Farmers Insurance Open, takes a commanding six-shot lead into the Monday finish.
It’s been a virtuoso, vintage performance by Woods, who will surely win for the eighth time on a course he’s loved since he was a boy, and one that’s served to quiet wagging tongues.
John Senden, a normally circumspect Australian with one Tour win, started Sunday four shots behind Woods, but didn’t think the tournament was over.
“You really do never know what can happen,” he said.
"At the end of the day, as comfortable as he is, he's still a golfer just like us so anything is possible."
Anything may be possible, but it’s impossible to imagine a middle-of-the-pack player calling out Woods — “a golfer just like us” — four years ago.
That he did speaks to how far the legend of Tiger Woods has been damaged since late 2009.
The 14 majors and 13 years of otherworldly doings have become distant memories.
In their place is the New Tiger, one who can still win, but — like the rest of them — only when it’s his week.
While he won three times last year — second only to Rory McIlroy — Woods also faltered on the weekends at the year’s final three majors.
Such vulnerability didn’t go unnoticed in the locker room.
And so eyeballs were trained on Woods — even more than they usually are — on a chilly Sunday morning.
He answered the bell.
Woods started the day with a two-shot lead and quickly distanced himself from the peloton with a tap-in birdie on the second hole after expertly spinning a wedge off a ridge and then converted a two-and-a-half footer on the exacting par-3 third.
He cruised along — three more birdies against a lone bogey — until the 18th, a par 5 he’s never bogeyed in 36 rounds at Torrey Pines.
Woods’ drive found a corner in a fairway bunker, leaving him an awkward play and a mid-iron for his approach. He hit into the right greenside bunker but failed to convert an eight-footer for par; the only time he hasn’t gotten up-and-down from the sand in seven tries this week.
His body language said that it wasn’t the way he wanted to finish, but he didn’t have time to fester because he was back on the first tee 30 minutes later.
Woods’ first drive of the final round was, simply, horrendous. A quick pull hook that was closer to the sixth fairway than the hole he was playing.
But there was something else I remember about Woods, back in the day: He didn’t need to be in the short grass at Torrey. He won here once despite finishing last in fairways hit.
Certainly, the errant shot didn’t bother him; he calmly shaped an iron right-to-left, up and around a pine and found the putting surface, from where he safely two-putted.
Woods made another ugly par on the second after going way left again off the tee, but then sunk a 15-footer on the third for birdie. On the fourth, with the Pacific Ocean on the left, Woods went well right.
“That wasn’t left of the cliff,” he joked later, “You can hit it 400 yards to the right and still have a shot, so I was fine.”
Fine’s a relative concept. Woods was stymied by a tree and could only punch a low shot toward the green.
He came up well short of a tricky green.
But then he chipped in for birdie.
It was really a remarkable stretch of four holes. Good players, from where he’d hit the ball, could have been well over par.
He was 2-under.
And that’s the Tiger I remember, too.
For good measure, Woods gouged a 5 wood out of the right rough on the sixth, a par 5, and found the green, leading to a ho-hum two-putt birdie to give him a six-shot lead as darkness fell.
“It’s probably the whole package,” a tired Woods said later of what was working for him.
“I’ve driven the ball well, I’ve hit my irons well, and I’ve chipped and putted well.”
Though others have handed him the trophy, Woods knows there’s still work to do with defending champion Brandt Snedeker — whose putter can get very hot — and another former champion, Nick Watney, his closest pursuers.
“I’ve got to continue with executing my game plan,” he said.
“That’s the idea.”