Tiger Woods will have a front row seat of the future of the PGA Tour when he tees off at 1:40 p.m. ET on the South Course at Torrey Pines on Thursday.
The seven-time event champion at the Farmers Insurance Open will be playing in his first official Tour event since this tournament last year. That was won by Jon Rahm, who will tee off in the group ahead of Woods on Thursday.
Rahm is not only the defending champion, he also enters the week at a career-high No. 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings after winning at the CareerBuilder Challenge last week. A defense of his title this week would vault Rahm to No. 1 in the world in just 44 career starts.
Woods, 42, said the two met for the first time this week. Rahm was just 13 when Woods won the most recent of his 14 majors at Torrey Pines in 2008.
Rahm is the unquestioned favorite as the defending champion who also sports a second-place finish at the Tournament of Champions on his early 2018 resume. He is the top-ranked player in the field with No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 3 Jordan Spieth and No. 4 Justin Thomas not in San Diego.
Other likely contenders who find themselves flying under the radar this week include Hideki Matsuyama (No. 5), Justin Rose (No. 6), and Rickie Fowler (No. 7).
Woods enters at No. 647, and many believe simply making the cut and playing four full rounds would be considered a significant achievement.
He missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open last year, then withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic. Woods eventually underwent a fourth back procedure, this time to have his vertebrae fused. He didn’t resurface in a competitive tournament until the Hero World Golf Challenge in December, an unofficial PGA Tour event.
Woods has spent the time since playing a lot of practice rounds and attempting to strengthen his overall golf game and endurance so he can play a regular schedule leading up to the Masters in April.
“My expectations have tempered a little bit because I haven’t played,” Woods acknowledged Wednesday. “I haven’t played a full schedule since 2015… it’s been a long time. I just want to play on the Tour and get into a rhythm of playing a schedule again. I haven’t done that in such a long time, so I don’t know what to expect.”
Woods has won nine times at Torrey — including the 2008 U.S. Open. He is next scheduled to tee it up at the Genesis Open at Riviera in three weeks. Asked on Wednesday how he knows his back is significantly better than it was this time last year, Woods replied simply, “I have no more pain.
“I have no more pain in my back … my back is fused. That wasn’t the case last year, I was trying to manage the disc and the vertebrae. It’s all finished now. Now it’s fused, and quality of life is infinitely better than it was at this time last year.”
“I haven’t felt this good in years, so I’m excited about it.”
So is Rahm, one of many young stars on Tour who grew up admiring Woods’ dominance but have yet to play with him since becoming professionals themselves. Rahm said this week that he would relish the opportunity to walk the back nine on Sunday in contention alongside Woods.
“To be honest, I think a lot of us dreamt about having the opportunity to maybe walk the back nine with Tiger in contention and have a battle hand in hand,” Rahm said.
“It would be something amazing for any of us. I hope it happens for somebody. I hope I’m the one, and quite truly I hope I come out on top if it happens.”
–Derek Harper, Field Level Media