LA JOLLA, Calif. -- For virtually all of Tiger Woods' career, it was the one question that produced the shortest answer.
Invariably, someone would inquire about Woods' expectations for a certain tournament. He'd answer quickly, without a hint of a smile or doubt.
It doesn't take long to utter a single letter.
"W," Woods would say.
That was the guy who won 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour events in the first 18 years of his career.
That is not the same golfer who will make his first U.S. start in a year when the Farmers Insurance Open begins Thursday, sitting on a victory drought of four years.
He arrived at Torrey Pines -- the site of eight of his wins -- with fused disks in his back, some hints of optimism, but absolutely no clue how he will perform.
That single letter has been replaced by piece of punctuation: "?"
At a news conference Wednesday, Woods admitted his expectations have been tempered by all that he has been through since his last victory in 2013.
"I haven't played a full schedule since 2015. It's been a long time," he said. "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 that I don't know what to expect.
"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."
Woods, 42, played 16 PGA Tour events in 2013 and won five times. He has competed in only 19 tournaments since, managing one top-10 finish.
His 2014 season was hindered by back surgery, the '15 campaign was abbreviated and there was another back surgery, and he lost all of '16 while recovering.
When Woods tried to come back last year, he missed the cut for the first time at Torrey Pines and withdrew after one round the following week in Dubai.
Woods announced in late April that he would undergo more surgery -- this time to fuse disks in his lower back. He has said that there were times when the pain had been so bad he couldn't get out of bed.
His soft return came in December at the unofficial event he hosts, the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. More encouraging than the results -- he shot a 65 in one round and finished 15th -- was how sound his swing and body looked.
Since that event, Woods said he has been playing golf at home in Florida about six days a week, which would give him about 40 rounds of work.
"Now it's just, 'Hey, want to go play 18? Want to go play 36?' Sure," Woods said. "That, to me, is fun. I miss those days."
Woods said that the quality of his life is "infinitely better" than it was a year ago when he came to Torrey Pines. He spoke of a burning pain running the length of his leg to his feet, and of times when he collapsed while walking.
"I just wanted to not feel as bad as I had felt for such a long time," Woods said. "I just want to have the lifestyle in which I can actually participate in my kids' life. ... Golf was not on the top of that list.
"But now that I'm able to start doing that, it feels good. It feels good to go out and practice. ... I haven't felt this good in years, so I'm excited about it."
Knowledgeable coaches have marveled at the swing speed Woods displayed in the Hero.
Woods' former instructor, Hank Haney, was interviewed Wednesday on PGA Tour Radio and predicted a top-10 finish for Woods this week.
"My goodness, his swing looks great," Haney said. "There is no way in the world that Tiger Woods cannot win golf tournaments with that swing."
Others are more skeptical.
"The Bahamas was a nice resort golf course. It was 85 degrees," CBS analyst Nick Faldo said on the phone this week. "Now you come to a proper golf tournament, on a proper golf course, with serious rough.
"Does he have the stamina for tournament week? Does he have the consistency?"
Woods played 27 holes at Torrey Pines to prepare for this event, and those questions remain unanswered. In Wednesday's pro-am on the extremely narrow North Course, he hit only six of 14 fairways and reached only seven greens in regulation.
But he also finished with a flurry, making a 25-foot eagle when he reached the par-five 17th in two shots and a birdie on 18 from two feet. He shot two-under 70.
What remains clear is that the fascination with Woods has barely waned. Dozens of fans tailed him before sunlight touched the course at 6:40 a.m., and the gallery swelled to several hundred by the end.
"The most compelling figure in golf, and maybe in all of sports," Faldo said.
Jim Nantz, CBS's longtime golf host, offered that this latest comeback is akin to Tom Brady or Michael Jordan taking a couple of years off and then suiting up again.
"We don't know what that's going to look like," Nantz said, "but I know I've got to see it."
Woods wouldn't make any predictions for the week, saying that he didn't have a feel for some of his young competitors. He said he met Jon Rahm, the defending champion here and world No. 2, for the first time this week.
Woods does, however, have one large goal in front of him -- Augusta. He has played in only one of the last four Masters. Remarkably, he hasn't pulled on a green jacket since 2005.
"I'm just trying to build toward April," he said.
(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.