Tiger Woods returns to golf with the same belief he can win

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FILE - Tiger Woods hits out of a greenside bunker on the 17th hole during the final round of the Genesis Invitational golf tournament at Riviera Country Club, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. Woods is back at Riviera, this time with more on his plate than handing out the trophy in the Genesis Invitational. He returns to the PGA Tour for the first time since July. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang, File)

LOS ANGELES – Tiger Woods feels good enough to play at Riviera, his first tournament with a cut and without a cart since the British Open last July. He already is looking ahead to the Masters. And yes, he thinks he can win.

“I would not have put myself out here if I didn't think I could beat these guys,” Woods said Tuesday ahead of the Genesis Invitational, which has attracted 19 of the top 20 players in the world.

He also is well aware that he has not won since October 2019, and that at age 47 and with more surgeries than major titles (15), time is running out. He knows that. He's just not quite ready to accept it.

He marvels at how long Tom Brady lasted. He remembers when John Elway retired from the Denver Broncos because his body could no longer recover the way it once did. Golf is not a contact sport, but it has become a young man's game. Only two of the top 10 players in golf are in their 30s. The oldest is Rory McIlroy at 33.

Woods can play. The question is whether he can compete, whether he can win. He remains at 82 career PGA Tour titles, a record he shares with Sam Snead, who was 67 when he made the cut at a PGA Championship.

Part of Woods was annoyed that he was celebrated for making the cut in the Masters last year, his first competition since a February 2021 car crash outside Los Angeles shattered bones in his right leg and ankle.

“I'm there to get a W, OK? So I don't understand that making the cut is a great thing,” Woods said. “If I entered the event, it’s always to get a W. There will come a point in time when my body will not allow me to do that anymore, and it’s probably sooner rather than later. But wrapping my ahead around that transition and being the ambassador role and just trying to be out here with the guys, no, that’s not in my DNA.”

He played that ambassador role last year at the Genesis Invitational as the tournament host. He also is leading the private player meetings geared toward building a new PGA Tour model of elite tournaments as a response to Saudi-funded LIV Golf.

His announcement Friday that he was playing led to a scramble for media credentials. The back of the press room in the Riviera clubhouse was lined with some two dozen photographers waiting for him to show up for his news conference.

Justin Rose watched in December as Woods played with his son at the PNC Championship, riding in a cart. Woods has been saying he can hit all the shots, that it's walking to them that makes it difficult.

“In terms of the important part of can you hit a golf ball, can you get a ball in the hole, all of that seemed to be really in order,” Rose said. "But we know that’s definitely not the thing he struggles with, right? It’s obviously the physical side of putting together four rounds of golf. (It's) a really good sign to see him in the field and feeling willing and able to get out here.”

Woods had planned to play in his Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas the first week of December, but in accelerating his practice he developed plantar fasciitis that kept him from walking. He said he still copes with plantar fasciitis, only it has become manageable. The ankle is what gives him problems.

He prepared for Riviera — and the Masters, and whatever else can follow — with a more graduated practice of hitting golf balls, walking the course until he became tired, and then walking a little more until he could get in 18 holes.

What to expect? Not even Woods knows.

Expectations have run the gamut during his incomparable career. He once went two whole months in 2001 without winning, and the cover of a golf magazine said, "What's wrong with Tiger?" He went on to win his next three starts, including the Masters.

Now it's whether he's kidding himself about winning.

Woods no longer is motivated by naysayers, a product of age and maturity, with a dose of reality. He knows his last win was the Zozo Championship in Japan in 2019, which was six months after he won the Masters.

Before his back fusion surgery in 2017, when it was a struggle just to walk, Woods had reason to wonder if he would ever play. He thinks he can beat McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler, the new No. 1 in golf. But there is more gratitude about simply playing.

“Those back operations were tough,” he said. “That proved to myself more than anything that I could still do it. ... Ultimately, it's within me and whether or not I believe I can do it. It's not the motivating factor of outside.”

As for the rest of the year, Woods only knows it will be a limited schedule of the majors and maybe a few more. That's a good forecast. He was at Los Angeles Country Club on Monday riding around in a cart to look at the North course ahead of the U.S. Open.

The end is sooner rather than later, but it's not now.


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