Torrey Pines a special place for Tiger
SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods is not much for sentimentalism, not big on reliving the glory days. His focus, typically, is on moving forward, stalking the next trophy -- or now, winning his first golf tournament in more than a year.
But this is a place where the memories come flooding back, where there has been so much personal and professional success that you can't help but coax a smile out of Woods and get him to reminisce as he is about to embark on his 15th full pro season.
Woods attended his first PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines, played his first round on the South course at age 8 alongside his late father, Earl.
Then, of course, there are the seven professional victories here, including the remarkable playoff win over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open.
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Woods played on one leg that week, his left knee about to be reconstructed and a stress fracture making every step painful. How he did it, Woods still does not know.
There was the dramatic birdie putt on the 72nd hole to tie Mediate, the rally on the back nine of the 18-hole playoff to force an extra hole.
Woods said he looks more at the third round, where he finished with a flourish, including two eagles on the back nine and a chip-in birdie to give himself a 1-stroke advantage heading into the final round.
"Saturday is what turned the whole tournament around," Woods recalled. "Saturday was key because I wasn't hitting it very good. Played the back nine, made a couple of eagles and a chip-in at 17.
"So that's kind of what I look at is I somehow got myself into Sunday's contention with a pretty sweet back nine."
What we didn't know then: that Woods had a stress fracture in his left tibia, that a doctor told him not to play the U.S. Open, and that he defied those suggestions and said he was going to win anyway.
"When this story is told," his then instructor Hank Haney said at the time, "it will go down as his greatest victory."
So many stories have been told since, and so many of them not positive, that Woods' last tournament here must seem like a lifetime ago.
Woods had been back to Torrey Pines once before Wednesday, part of a Buick endorsement in which he caddied for a contest winner. It was months after his left knee was reconstructed and he was not yet able to play golf.
No doubt, much has transpired since Woods walked off this golf course with his 14th major title -- not the least of which is the fact that he has not added a 15th.
The reconstructive knee surgery occurred eight days later, knocking him out of action for the rest of 2008. He returned in late February of 2009, won six times on the PGA Tour, captured the money and FedEx titles, blew his first 54-hole lead in a major ... and then saw his life turned upside down.
Woods took a leave from the game due to his acknowledgement of marital infidelity, keeping him away from Torrey Pines for another year and starting a spiral that saw him go winless in a season for the first time in his career.
He has played 29 official PGA Tour events since winning the Open here, but none of the six victories occurred last year and only two of the 16 top-10s came in 2010.
What got more attention was his missed cut at Quail Hollow, his injury-induced withdrawal from the Players Championship, his worst four-round tournament as a pro at the WGC-Bridgestone (where he's also won seven times), his work with new instructor Sean Foley and the gradual turnaround that saw him smoke Francesco Molinari at the Ryder Cup and then lose a playoff to Graeme McDowell at the Chevron.
Despite blowing a 4-shot final-round lead to the Northern Irishman, Woods is using that tournament as a springboard for this year.
"Last year golfwise came down to one golf shot, and that's what I'm so proud of," Woods said. "The 72nd hole at Chevron, that was it. All the changes I made in my swing [and when] I needed it the most, I needed to hit that 8-iron with that kind of shot, and I pulled it off.
"So under the most intense pressure I hit the shot I needed to hit when I needed to hit it. That's something I've done in the past with Butch [Harmon] and Hank [Haney] and it's nice to have those moments."
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Woods stuck that shot to 2½ feet, only to have McDowell roll in his long birdie putt to deny him victory. McDowell then won on the first extra hole with a birdie putt from a similar length.
It meant Woods' first winless season as a pro, but it led into a much more normal offseason, the first in years in which Woods could concentrate on his fitness and on his game.
He spent considerable time with Foley, and seems somewhat surprised that things have come together so quickly.
Foley, for his part, has never felt it would take long to get Woods' swing issues sorted out.
"Conceptually he understood it a long time ago," said Foley, who is at Torrey Pines this week. "He didn't realize how it made sense. The thing I've seen that has taken place is he feels his swing matches what he understands. That's a big thing -- when you hit a shot and it starts to feel like you see it and understand it. The repetitions are starting to be a bit more natural. He's hitting golf shots instead of making golf swings."
Woods played the South course for the first time Wednesday afternoon in the tournament pro-am, a weekly obligation that will see him make some later starts this year due to his lackluster (68th) finish on the PGA Tour money list in 2010. He'll open the tournament on the North course, which is used during the first and second rounds.
Perhaps playing along Mediate for the first two days will provide even more inspiration and help him move past the worst year of his career.
Despite his heartbreaking loss to Woods 31 months ago, Mediate plays the role of publicist quite well.
"There's no way he'll stay where he is," Mediate said. "He's always going to come back. If he starts driving the ball straight, he'll beat Jack's [Nicklaus] record. You can't stop him if he drives it in the fairway ... you can't stop him. I think he'll be fine."
So does his longtime nemesis Phil Mickelson.
"I expect he'll be the Tiger we've known for over a decade," Mickelson said. And then he paused.
For now, Woods would just like to get off to a good start at a place he has owned. Five straight victories at Torrey Pines and seven overall is pretty hard to ignore.
And then there is the way he won that U.S. Open, one of the all-time achievements, considering his physical condition.
"I try to figure that out and I have no idea," Woods said. "It was stupid to play through that much pain ... I have a little bit of a hardheaded side to me."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.