In February 1992, a sprightly 16-year-old golf prodigy by the name of Tiger Woods made his first PGA Tour start at the Riviera Country Club in California.
Thursday – 31 years, 15 major triumphs and 82 PGA Tour wins later – a very different Woods, one pained by injury, played at the same venue for the Genesis Invitational, a tournament he hosts where proceeds go to his TGR Foundation.
Yet, in terms of his mentality, it will be the same Woods at the tee.
“If I’m playing in the event, I’m going to try and beat you,” Woods told reporters Tuesday.
“So I don’t understand that making the cut’s a great thing. 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.”
Woods started the tournament Thursday with a 2-under par 69, with birdies on his final three holes. He was five shots back of tournament leaders Max Homa and Keith Mitchell.
After suffering serious leg injuries in a car accident in February 2021, the story of the 47-year-old’s recent career has been of one decimated by injury and a grueling recovery process.
Woods’ participation in California this week marks his first official tournament start since The Open Championship in July last year and only his first non-major PGA Tour event since the ZOZO Championship in October 2020.
There were a couple of cameos in December – a father-son outing at the PNC Championship and a friendly battle at TNT’s The Match – but even in those, he looked to be visibly struggling with movement at various points.
His position on playing a limited schedule, picking and choosing a select number of tournaments, remains the same, with Woods earmarking The Masters at Augusta as a potential target. While he revealed his leg has improved, Woods admitted struggles with his ankle mean prolonged spells of walking remain challenging.
“I can still hit shots, but it’s the walking endurance that’s hard,” he said.
“That’s something that we’ve had to work on, walking distances on the beach, just basically stress it out but also be able to recover by the next day and see how it is inflammation-wise and then keep practicing.
“I may have overdone it a couple times here or there, but here I am.”
Record in sight
Woods arrives in California on the precipice of greatness. His victory at the 2019 ZOZO Championship tied legendary compatriot Sam Snead for the all-time record of 82 PGA Tour wins, meaning that one more triumph would see Woods become the outright leader.
Snead’s feat was a benchmark that once seemed insurmountable until a prodigious talent emerged at the turn of the century. Sound familiar? Earlier this month, LeBron James sunk his 38,388th career point to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
“What he [James] accomplished is absolutely incredible – just the durability, the consistency and the longevity,” Woods said.
“I grew up watching Kareem here … that record we never thought it would be surpassed. What LeBron is doing – but also the amount of minutes he’s playing – no one’s ever done that at that age, to be able to play all five positions, that’s never been done before at this level for this long.
“As far as our equivalent to that, I don’t know, maybe you look at maybe me and Sam [Snead] at 82? It takes a career to get to those numbers. That’s how I think probably best how you look at it.”
Woods Thursday was part of a star-studded grouping, playing alongside four-time major winner Rory McIlroy and two-time major champion Justin Thomas. A smiling Woods finished with five birdies and three bogeys in his round, while McIlroy shot a 4-under 67 and Thomas carded a 68.
McIlroy is vying to instantly reclaim the world No. 1 spot he lost to Scottie Scheffler on Sunday when the American defended his crown at the Phoenix Open. The victory clinched a fifth PGA Tour title for Scheffler, who is excited to go again with the added bonus of Woods on the fairways.
“Tiger means so much to us as players out here on Tour and he’s done so much for us out here that it’s fun for us to be able to see him still continue to do what he loves,” he told reporters Tuesday.
“It was pretty scary a few years ago when he got in that accident and we didn’t know if he was going to be able to do this again, and so just to have him out here on the grounds and to see him around doing what he loves to do is a lot of fun for us.”
A new look PGA Tour
A $3.6 million winner’s reward will be up for grabs, though defending champion Joaquin Niemann will not be in California to defend his title. The Genesis Invitational is one of the PGA Tour’s “designated events,” offering a boosted prize purse of $20 million to rival the offerings of the LIV Golf Tour, of which Niemann is a part of.
On Tuesday, Woods said that while there were “mixed emotions” among players on the Tour’s new format, he was optimistic about its development.
“From a marketing side of it and from the Tour side of it and the future of our sport, it’s been very positive,” Woods said.
“We need to keep going with it and need to stay aligned and keep progressing and making it better. We need to produce the best product we possibly can to sell to all the viewerships.
“It’s about us creating the best products so we have more eyes on it, more stars, people want to come out and either watch the game of golf, participate, either on social media or the different streaming platforms,” he added.
Speaking Wednesday, McIlroy said the feedback he had received about the designated events echoed what Woods had heard.
“It’s the top half of the membership being really happy that they’re in them and… but then the guys maybe on the outside looking in being worried about if they’re always going to be on the outside looking in,” McIroy told reporters.
“I think that the big thing has been, ‘Is this going to be like a closed shop for the same guys every single week?’ And it’s not. This tour was built on meritocracy. This tour was built on if you shoot the scores, you can move up the levels and play the biggest events. That’s not going to be taken away.
“It’s just about making it more competitive. Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. Like I’m not saying that we’re going to have field sizes of 50, it’s going to be closer to what you’ve seen in the past. We’re not trying to limit opportunities out here, but we also want to make sure that when people get opportunities, it’s the most competitive, most competitive tournaments and the most competitive product that we can put out there.”
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.