Tiger Woods focused on building toward Masters in April

SAN DIEGO -- While he said the main goal is to be prepared for April and the Masters, Tiger Woods admitted that his first official PGA Tour event in a year comes without the usual thoughts of holding the trophy Sunday.

Woods begins play Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open, the same tournament he has won seven times but where he also missed the cut a year ago in his only PGA Tour start of 2017. A week later he headed to Dubai, where he played just one round before withdrawing, eventually needing a fourth back surgery.

That spinal fusion kept him out for six months, but Woods said he is pain free and has been able to prepare better than at any time in the past three-plus years.

Still, there is that issue of competitive rust, Woods acknowledged Wednesday during a news conference at Torrey Pines.

"My expectations have tempered a little bit because I haven't played,'' said Woods, 42, who will play in a sanctioned tournament for just the 21st time since the first of his four back surgeries in 2014. "When I came back off my ACL injury in '08 and started playing in '09, it was nine months, but I had played a full schedule prior to that. I haven't played a full schedule since 2015. It's been a long time.

"To be honest with you, I just want to start playing on the tour and getting 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. I'm going to grind it, give it everything I possibly have; if I put the ball in the right position and make some putts and try to work my way up the board.''

Woods tees off at 1:40 p.m. ET with Charley Hoffman and Patrick Reed on a course where he has had some of his greatest success in the game, including his 2008 U.S. Open victory in a playoff over Rocco Mediate.

But in recent years, the course has played more like a U.S. Open course than it has your typical January tour layout. Although the winning score will be well under par, the deeper rough and narrow fairways exploit any weaknesses.

Last year Woods opened with a score of 76 on the South Course and ended up missing the cut by four strokes. The North Course, where he shot 72 (and will play Friday), was renovated and lengthened before last year's tournament and is far more difficult than previously. (In 2014, Woods tied for 80th; he withdrew in 2015 during the first round.)

But as he did last month when he played at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, Woods admitted that pain was constant during his previous comebacks.

"I have no more pain in my back, my back is fused,'' he said. "That wasn't the case last year. I was trying to manage the disk and the vertebrae, but it's all finished now. Now it's fused and quality of life is infinitely better than it was last year at this point.''

Woods looked surprisingly good in his first tournament in 10 months when he shot three rounds in the 60s and tied for ninth last month at the Hero World Challenge.

But the Albany Club in the Bahamas is a resort course with wide fairways and coquina sand in place of deep rough. Woods could swing freely. Tighter fairways and deep rough can lead to numerous challenges he did not face there.

"I can look at different scenarios last week,'' Woods said. "If I would have come back and played last week [at the CareerBuilder Challenge in Palm Springs], the conditions are easier, but you have to shoot 6-under-par a day. Here it's difficult conditions and we're going to be making a lot of pars. Either scenario would have been difficult.

"I haven't played and I've got to start somewhere and try and get my game and my feel back. I just haven't really played tournament golf, basically since Wyndham [Championship] in 2015. It's been a long time, and so I just want some starts. I want to start feeling what it feels like to be out here and hit shots, grind out scores, and that's something that I've been looking forward to.''

This tournament and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera are the only events Woods has committed to so far. If all goes well, you can expect him to add the Honda Classic and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which would give four starts prior to the Masters, which he has not played since 2015.

"I'm just trying to build towards April,'' Woods said. "That's what I told you guys in the Bahamas, and I'm looking forward to playing a full schedule and getting ready for the Masters, and I haven't done that in a very long time. That's usually been my schedule and my outlook.''