Tiger Woods returned Thursday from a prolonged PGA Tour hiatus to participate in the Farmers Insurance Open, an event held at one of the courses Woods has most dominated, Torrey Pines. Woods has won this event seven times, and added an eighth victory here at the 2008 U.S. Open, making him the only golfer in PGA Tour history to win eight times at one course.
But that was a very different Tiger Woods, one that well pre-dated the injury plagued, poor performing golfer of the same name who has teed it up in recent years. Woods had no doubt hoped Torrey Pines could help him launch his comeback in strong fashion and restore his once-dominant game to peak performance. But if the first round is any indication, it doesn’t look like that will happen. And in fact it also showed how the PGA tour he once dominated is a very different tour he returns to now.
Woods, who last played in a tour event at the 2015 Wyndham Championship, hit his first two shots off the tee into the rough, didn’t hit a fairway from the tee box after the seventh hole and struggled to save par the entire round, turning in a 4-over 76, just his fourth over-par score in 55 rounds at the Farmers Insurance Open. It was also Woods’s highest score to start his year as a professional, exceeding his previous high of 73 at the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open.
The last time Tiger played Torrey Pines, his glutes didn't activate. So, I mean… this is terrific progress.
— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelESPN) January 26, 2017
Even if Woods was positioned to make the weekend, he wouldn’t have anything close to the competitive advantage he enjoyed at his peak.
Before having knee surgery in April 2008, Woods never ranked lower than 12th on the tour in driving distance, finishing at least sixth in eight out of his first 11 years on the tour and averaging 299.5 yards per drive. Since then, he’s only had enough drives to even qualify for the ranking three times. His best qualifying finish was at No. 21 (298.4 yards) in 2009. In 2014-15 he ended the season with 64 total drives averaging 300.2 yards each, which would rank him 42nd on this year’s circuit.
The two other players in his pairing Thursday, Dustin Johnson, the reigning PGA Tour player of the year, and Jason Day, the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, placed second (313.6 yards) and 15th (304.2 yards) in average driving distance, respectively, last season. And there are 40 more golfers topping the 300-yard mark this year, nearly triple the amount in 2004, the first year Woods averaged over 300 yards per drive.
His struggles extend further than just his distance — Woods’ entire game, from tee to green, has been suffering since he withdrew from the final round of The Players Championship in 2010, citing a bulging disk.
According to strokes gained, the per-round average of the number of strokes the player was better or worse than the field average on the same course and event, Woods gained 2.31 strokes per round from the tee to the green in 2009, but dropped to 0.17 and 0.58, respectively, in 2010 and 2011. He hit just four of 14 fairways and nine of 18 greens in regulation during the opening round at Torrey Pines, resulting in a minus-3.9 strokes gained from tee to green in the first round. He gained 1.54 strokes from his putting.
Strokes gained is preferred over other metrics because it compares players on the same holes and course. If you just look at driving accuracy, greens in regulation and/or putts, it just doesn’t tell you much. For example, if one player sinks a 25-foot putt and another makes his three-foot tap in, it is clear the former has saved himself more strokes than the latter. Here’s another: a ball that goes 100 yards off the tee but still hits the fairway counts as being “accurate,” the same as hitting it 300 yards down the middle. But it is clear which player hit the better ball.
Woods’s problems off the tee derailed any chance he had of staying around par in the Farmers Insurance Open, and you could make excuses that it was just a result of him not being in regular competition for so long. But the truth is that while Woods has gotten worse, the game has also passed him by.