LA JOLLA, Calif.
Are you back, Tiger?
“Never left,” he replied, breaking into a warm smile on a chilly Monday afternoon.
Last time I asked him that question — after his first post-scandal victory, the 2011 World Challenge — Woods dug into his old-school playlist, throwing out an LL Cool J lyric from "Momma Said Knock You Out":
Don’t call it a comeback/I been here for years
Rockin’ my peers/Puttin’ suckers in fear
He may not want to call it a comeback, but let’s just say it’s been a while since he’s put suckers in fear.
Yes, he won three times last year, but each of those depended to some degree on others falling short as much as they did on Woods being at his best.
After wins like this one, though, where it was only ever about him, past may once again be prologue.
Despite an ugly final five holes — played in 4 over par — at the Farmers Insurance Open on Monday, Woods still comfortably won the tournament by four shots.
“In the end, I just started losing my patience. It was so friggin’ slow out there,” he said of being forced to spend almost four hours to play 11 holes.
“I had an 8-shot lead, so just needed to stay upright and I was going to be fine.”
It was his fourth win in 16 starts, a winning percentage near his career 27 percent It's his 75th win overall — just seven behind Sam Snead’s record — and eighth professional victory at Torrey Pines, a course he’s loved since he was a boy.
And success in San Diego has always been a good harbinger for Woods, who went on to win 38 times — including five majors — in the years he started seasons with a trophy here.
It appears he’s rockin’ his peers again, too.
“We’re kids compared to him,” lamented Erik Compton, who played in the group ahead of Woods on Monday.
Hunter Mahan said it was clear that Woods wanted to “send a message.”
“There’s been so much talk about Rory,” he added, referring to world No. 1 Rory McIlroy.
Bill Haas never thought Woods wouldn’t come back because, like Woods, he doesn’t really think he ever left.
“I was never one to say that he was less of a player than he once was,” he said. “I’ve always thought he was easily the greatest player our game’s ever seen. His record doesn’t quite match Jack’s but I’ve played against him; he’s unbelievable.”
It seems none of his peers ever really wrote off Woods.
“The media needed something to talk about, so they talked about writing him off,” Jerry Kelly said. “We all knew he was working on something and he’d come back just as strong as he was after working on things.
“I’m not surprised at all with what he’s done here. I’ve seen it all before.”
But will we see it again as we did before?
While Woods leaves Southern California not only with a check and a trophy but the knowledge that his wedges and short game — a liability for the past few years — are once again strengths, there’s a hole in the comeback.
Maybe it’s unfair — though it was Woods who set the bar so high — but to truly be back, he’s going to have to prove it on the game’s biggest stage: the majors.
Woods won the last of his 14 majors — ironically, here on a Monday — almost five years ago. Last year, he got tight on the weekend at the final three majors after being in the thick of the race and faded badly.
“I just didn’t play well,” he acknowledged on Monday. “A lot of it is getting up-and-down at major championships. You’re not going to hit the ball great every day. You’re going to have to get up-and-down, make a 10-footer for par and I wasn’t doing that. Consequently, those 74s and 75s should have been 70s or 71s, and that’s how you win those tournaments.
“I started doing that towards the end of last year. Unfortunately, the majors were already over.”
But will the re-emergence of his short game lead to a green jacket in April?
I don’t know if it’s even possible to be worried after a four-shot win, but there were signs in the way Woods played the back nine on Monday that might give him pause.
His driver, reliably long and relatively straight through three rounds, betrayed him under the pressure of the final round.
Woods’ imagination and skill managed to mask the flaw until those final five holes when the pressure on his short game to save him became too much, too.
“This win is going to irk him,” Nick Faldo said. “He’s going to get on his plane and head home and think, ‘I’ve got to solve this driver problem.’
“He’s still got those driver demons on his shoulder.”
I’m not sure that he does — we will learn more in the coming weeks — but if they are haunting him, Woods needs them buried before April, or he’ll get his wish and we won’t call it a comeback.