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Tiger nearly comes up aces at Torrey Pines in return to PGA Tour

Tod Leonard, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Golf

SAN DIEGO -- The moment can't be compared to the U.S. Open Sunday birdie putt on the 18th hole at Torrey Pines.

Few things in Tiger Woods' career can top that.

But for a guy coming off disk fusion surgery, with fans hungry for a glimpse of former greatness, it was still pretty sweet.

On Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open, Woods came oh-so-close to halting a long-running hole-in-one drought. On the par-3 16th of the Torrey Pines South Course, he launched a high 6-iron shot that hit the green and rolled to within 6 inches of the cup.

"Felt good, looked good, the wind got it," Woods later said with a big grin.

Woods hasn't made an ace anywhere in 20 years -- since the 1998 International. Not on the PGA Tour. Not in a match with his buddies. Not on a pitch-and-putt with his kids.

An ace would have led sportscasts around the world, but the resulting birdie was still big. It helped Woods shoot even-par 72 in the first round and gave him a solid chance to make the cut as he moved to the North Course on Friday.

"I care about what I do," Woods said, "and it was fun to feel that competitive rush again ... have a scorecard in my hand and try to post a number."

Indicative of where Woods stands in his comeback from nearly a year outside the ropes, he's trying to play on the weekend in an official tournament for the first time since 2015. And he's already well off the pace of the leaders.

Fifth-year tour player Tony Finau poured in nine birdies on the North Course in shooting a 7-under 65. The next two on the leaderboard came from the South Course, with Ted Potter Jr. and Ryan Palmer each scoring 66.

Eleven players were tied at 4 under, including defending Farmers champion Jon Rahm (South Course), who is coming off last week's playoff victory in the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Woods still has a lot of work to do. He was tied for 84th and needed to gain at least a stroke on the field in the second round to make the cut. He also faces a North Course that was once considered the meek brother to the South, but now seems to bloody just as many noses.

In the first round, the North played only about two-thirds of a stroke easier than the South. Of the 73 rounds under par on Thursday, more than half -- 41 -- came on the South.

"I didn't think there were going to be that many good scores out there," Woods said. "... There was no wind out there to give us any trouble. The greens are springy; they were bouncing a bit."

Woods' latest comeback was welcomed by several thousand fans who lined the entire first hole on a clear, chilly morning on the bluffs lining the Pacific Ocean. The gallery swelled as the round progressed, and there wasn't an open seat in the massive hospitality tents at the 18th green when Woods' group arrived.

Afterward, children who were not yet alive when Woods captured his last major championship in the '08 U.S. Open screamed loudly for his autograph. He obliged a few before heading off to the parking lot. Some tour youngsters on the putting green stopped their practice to watch Woods walk by.

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"I thought it was incredible," Woods said of his reception. "They were into it, they were supportive. It was nice to come back to Southern California again. I miss it out here. I miss playing this golf course."

Woods played four strokes better on the South than he did last year, when he missed the cut for the first time in the tournament he has won seven times. He didn't play anywhere in 2016, and in '15 he withdrew with a back problem from the Farmers Open after playing only 11 holes on the North Course.

The 14-time major winner scattered three birdies and three bogeys in the round. He hit only 12 of the 18 greens and saved a few pars with deft chip shots, but also missed a 31/2-foot putt to bogey the par-5 13th -- statistically, the third-easiest hole on the South.

His iron play was shaky.

"I've got to hit my irons a little better than I did today," Woods said. "I didn't hit them very close. I didn't give myself a lot of looks."

The birdies came smoothly. Woods hit the green on the par-5 sixth in two shots and missed by inches on his eagle putt. At the 10th, his wedge shot stopped 2 feet from the hole. And there was the near-ace at 16.

Finau is a 28-year-old from Utah who turned pro at 17 and then spent years grinding on smaller tours before making it to the major leagues in 2014-15. He won his first and only title in 2016 in the Puerto Rico Open.

He nearly won for a second time in October's Safeway Open in Napa, finishing second.

On Thursday, Finau birdied the first two holes on the North Course, added back-to-back birdies at Nos. 5 and 6, and made another birdie at 8. On the back nine, he birdied 10, 13, 16 and 18.

As one of the biggest hitters on tour -- Finau is a second in average distance this season at 329.8 -- he has considered the Torrey Pines courses a favorable playground. In three Farmers starts, he doesn't have a finish outside the top 25, and last year he tied for fourth.

Finau said he relishes taking on the South Course next.

"The South Course sets up nicely for me with my length," he said. "It looks good to me. A lot of holes you can hit a fade, and I'm a fader of the ball. So I think probably a combo of those things off the tee and playing this golf course, I have some momentum."

(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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