Golf is, necessarily, about numbers.
Tiger Woods’ number on an overcast Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open was 68.
On the more exacting Torrey Pines South course — which played two shots harder than the shorter North — a round of 4-under par represented a very good start for Woods. He has won seven times here but none since the scandal.
Even though Woods could have shot much lower — he had six birdies and an eagle — only four players on the South bettered him, which left Woods satisfied despite a sloppy finish.
“A 68 on the South,” he declared, “Is a good number.”
But there was more to Thursday’s round than just a number. For stretches, Woods looked, dare it be said, like the Old Tiger. And it wasn’t just his play that said so, but his demeanor.
When he was at his best, he carried an aura of imperiousness. He was never in any doubt as to whether he would play well; the only question was how well.
Since the scandal, that self-assuredness hasn’t been as obvious.
“I knew he was going to play well today,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “I don’t know if it’s because he’s very comfortable here, but I could see it on the range this morning when we were warming up. His tempo looked good, and he was moving the ball both ways.
“I always know he’s going to play well when he shapes it easily both ways on the range.”
LaCava’s instincts were validated immediately. Woods found a fairway bunker on the first hole — a relatively benign par 4 he managed to butcher during his 2008 US Open victory here — but drained a 20 footer for birdie.
And that’s important, too, because Woods back in the day was deadly from that range.
“I think he could’ve played quite a bit better,” said Rickie Fowler, who plays socially with Woods in Florida and was paired with him on Thursday. “But when he was on the greens, he definitely took advantage.”
Woods, who is three shots off the lead shared by K.J. Choi and Brandt Snedeker, missed left off the tee early, but it didn’t get him into trouble until the brutal fourth, nestled along the Pacific. From an awkward, side-hill stance in the rough, Woods hit a poor approach, chipped on, then three-putted for double bogey.
“Yeah, he wasn’t in the best mood after that,” LaCava said.
But Woods rebounded immediately with a birdie on the next, then recalled that 2008 US Open when he holed his greenside bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 sixth.
“It was more important to get that birdie right out of the way (on the fifth) and get back to even par with the par 5 to play,” Woods said. “I knew I had two par 5s on the front side to go, so I could get it under par and then maybe get two or three on the back. I thought that would be a good score.
“And, lo and behold, I got it rolling.”
That he did, with birdies on eight, nine, 12 and 13.
“Got it to 6 (under par) and had a chance to get to 7,” he said.
But the putt on the 14th slid agonizingly by the hole.
It seemed, at the time, just a minor inconvenience. He was playing so well it seemed inevitable that he would tie for the lead. But then came a reminder that resurrection for Tiger Woods won’t be easy.
An errant tee shot to the right of 15 left him behind a tree and resulted in a bogey after a bad chip. Another poor chip on 17 led to another bogey.
Woods layed up on the closing par 5, but from 95 yards sailed a lob wedge over the green and into a bunker. He needed to hole an 8-footer for par just to stay at 4 under.
“I hit a beautiful putt to get it to 7 (under), and I get up and down on 18 to get to 4,” he shrugged, “I made a few mistakes out there, but I made some nice plays, as well.”
Woods and LaCava explained the turnaround given last week’s missed cut in Abu Dhabi.
“I think last week really was just a lack of playing,” LaCava said. “You can practice all you want, but you need the competition.”
Woods agreed, to a point.
“It does help to play after having six weeks off,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was only a couple of rounds, but it was still nice to get a feel for it.
“It wasn’t really a lot different than how I hit it last week. Last week’s conditions were a lot more difficult, and the fairways were narrow and the wind was howling. I felt like I was doing a lot of good things last week. And I came out here today and basically did the same thing.”