April 19, 2024

Speaking to the media 20 hours before teeing it up in his first official PGA Tour event in 10 months, Tiger Woods expressed optimism about his health and his game.

Much has happened since he withdrew in the third round of the Masters in April citing plantar fasciitis — most of it off the golf course. Having severed his 27-year partnership with Nike in January, he has a new 3-wood, a new clothing line and a new attitude as he makes his second consecutive appearance in the Genesis Invitational.

“I had an absolute blast today,” the 48-year-old Woods said after Wednesday morning’s Pro-Am in which he played alongside Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Angels outfielder Aaron Hicks. “A lot of talking trash, telling stories … enjoying one another’s company. Considering what he does for a living and the pounding his body takes, you can see the enjoyment Josh has for the game and he asked the questions only fellow athletes can ask.”

Asked if the ankle fusion surgery he underwent two weeks after the 2023 Masters is causing him discomfort, the answer was an emphatic “no.”

“My ankle doesn’t hurt any more,” Woods said. “My back is fused too and other parts of my body have taken the brunt of that. You adapt to soreness wherever it is.”

The 15-time major champion is not only playing, he is also hosting the four-day event. Woods said he physically feels capable of competing despite the long layoff.

“The main thing is my swing,” Woods said. “I try to make sure I can still it hit flush and solid. I don’t have the same speed, I can’t practice for the same number of hours and what my body does day-to-day and week-to-week looks different. A lot is based on my hands. I’ve built my swing the last four or five years based on my hands and what that feels like.”

For the greatest player of his generation and perhaps the most recognizable athlete the world has ever seen, what is there left to add to his resume?

Well, a Genesis Invitational title, for one thing.

Woods is tied with Sam Snead for most career PGA Tour victories (each has 82). He needs one more to have the record all to himself and it would be fitting if he were to set it at the venue where his legendary pro career started in 1992 when he was a 16-year-old amateur.

“A win would be nice,” he joked when asked why he has yet to conquer a course he readily admitted suits his game, or at least used to.

“Traditionally I’ve not putted well here and it’s frustrating because I feel comfortable here. Most of the holes are left to right with small greens and I’ve never gotten hot with the putter. It’s a fader’s delight and I’ve always been a pretty good iron player, but for whatever reason I haven’t put four good rounds together at this event. I had a chance one year against Ernie [Els] and hit a foul ball on the last hole.”

Woods is making his 15th start at Riviera. His best result was a tie for second in 1999 when the Los Angeles-based event was called the Nissan Open. Last year, he made the cut and eventually tied for 45th. His opening round starts at 9:25 a.m. Thursday in a threesome with Justin Thomas and Gary Woodland, who was granted an exemption after undergoing brain surgery late last year.

“It’s been full circle for me, having come out here when I was 7 or 8 years old the time Lanny [Wadkins] won it,” Woods added. “This is where I played my first tour event and now having my foundation and being in control of that event I hope I figure something out and get in contention. As for Gary, people don’t realize how scary that was for him. To come back the way he has … I applaud him for what he’s overcome.”

Regarding his new role as player director on the tour’s policy board, Woods confirmed his belief that Strategic Sports Group (SSG) is “the right partner for the PGA at a time when we need leadership.” He added that the Public Investment Fund deal is ongoing. “We’re still negotiating. We’d like to have PIF be a part of our tour and our product but financially we don’t now. We’re also looking into models for the pathways back for LIV players. There’s no answer right now. There are varying degrees of ideas.”

Max Homa, also a Southern California native, considers Riviera his home course. He received the trophy from Woods after winning the tournament in 2021 and he was the runner-up to Jon Rahm last winter. He fully embraces the phenomenon known as the “Tiger effect.”

“I’m just happy to see the man not limping as much,” said Homa, who he teed off 40 minutes before Woods on Wednesday and grew up walking Riviera, where he has four consecutive top 10 finishes. “Every event is better when Tiger’s there. His presence alone makes it feel a bit bigger. When Tiger’s around, there’s less people watching you, but more people watching golf and it’s great.”

Homa is among the players who figure to contend for the $4 million winner’s check in a field featuring 10 of the top 11 players in the World Golf Rankings and nine of the top 10 in the FedExCup standings. This new crop of talent presents a challenge that continues to drive Woods despite all he has achieved.

“I still love competing, playing, being part of the game of golf,” he said. “It’s a game of a lifetime and I don’t ever want to stop playing.”

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