SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods' twirled the driver in his hand after another tee shot went where he was aiming, right down the middle of the first fairway on the South Course at Torrey Pines.
It's a place Woods had not been in a while. His caddie thought it might have been as far back as 2007.
"That's not true," Woods protested during his pro-am Wednesday. "I hit this fairway in the playoff. Remember when I raised my arms to celebrate because I hadn't done it all week?"
The reference was to the 2008 U.S. Open, when Woods made three double bogeys on No. 1 and still managed to get into a playoff against Rocco Mediate, beating him in 19 holes the next day for his 14th major.
That seems so long ago.
Woods remains stuck on 14 majors. He hasn't played at Torrey Pines since that summer. He returns for the Farmers Insurance Open, which starts Thursday, with everyone curious about how he will play on a public course he has owned for years.
For Woods, a new year never looked so appealing.
"I'm looking forward to getting out there and playing, and basically feeling the heat again," Woods said.
Woods makes his season debut at Torrey Pines, where he has not lost a tournament since 2004. Then again, he has not played the last two years while trying to recover from two different setbacks. The first was reconstructive knee surgery, the second was the implosion of his personal life after revelations of his extramarital affairs.
He has rarely been this excited about a new season, mainly so he can get the last one behind him.
Woods failed to win anywhere in the world for the first time in his pro career while going through a divorce. The only time he seriously contended on the back nine of a tournament was the last one he played — the Chevron World Challenge in early December, where he blew a four-shot lead in the last round and lost to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell in a playoff.
Woods winning at Torrey Pines wasn't as predictable as death and taxes, but it was headed there. He has won his last five times dating to 2005 and including the U.S. Open. He has never finished out of the top 10.
But now? After falling to No. 3 in the world? After so much speculation that he has lost his intimidation, and that he can no longer make all the putts that carried him to 82 victories worldwide?
Can he ever be the same?
"Absolutely. Yeah," Mickelson said. "I hope not, but I think he will."
Mickelson was only joking about being hopeful that Woods played like 2010 instead of the decade that preceded it, just as he sarcastically ended another comment when he said, "I expect that he'll be the Tiger that we've known for over a decade, unfortunately."
Woods does not disagree.
He felt his game coming together at the Chevron World Challenge, and there was nothing to indicate during his pro-am that much had changed since then. Off the course, Woods continues to talk about a restored sense of balance in his life, although even he can't be sure how that will translate to a score on the card.
"I think in order to play this game at a high level, it helps to have a clear mind," Woods said before going out for his 11 a.m. pro-am time on the South Course. "I've played at the high levels before in the past without a clear mind, but it helps to be consistent. It helps having your life in balance. Certainly, my life is much more balanced than it was in the past. That's exciting for me. I think it's exciting for my kids, and we're really looking forward to it."
Woods already was getting accustomed to his new role — no so much as the No. 3 player in the world behind Lee Westwood and now Martin Kaymer of Germany, but as the No. 68 player on the PGA Tour money list a year ago.
Pro-am tee times are determined by the previous year's money list. It was only a few days ago that Woods realized he no longer was awarded the first tee time at the crack of dawn, rather the middle of the pack — 11 a.m. in this case.
Reality struck again when he woke up.
"Got up at 3:30 in the morning not knowing what to do," he said.
Woods said he's fresh going into a new season for the first time in about six years, although his two-month break was not pain-free. He had a cortisone shot in his right ankle two days after the Chevron World Challenge, which he said kept him out for a week.
Even so, there wasn't much else on his mind besides golf.
"It's nice to have an offseason where I wasn't in pain and recovering from something," Woods said. "I've had so many darn surgeries and everything. Granted, I had a cortisone shot, but I was fine in a week. I haven't had an offseason like this. It's always been trying to somehow, 'Can I get myself to start up again?' This was nice to actually practice and build."
Now it's time to evaluate his game. And there's no better place to measure the progress than Torrey Pines.
Not by coincidence, Woods will be playing with Mediate (along with Anthony Kim) the first two rounds. The PGA Tour this year is moving around some of the pairings to create story lines.
Mediate expects to see the Woods he did that day at Torrey.
"My opinion, if he gets it and starts driving his ball where he's looking, the game is over," Mediate said. "It doesn't matter who is there. Call it what you want. I've seen it. I've been around it. I've studied it. If you put him in the fairway, as good as he putts, as good as his short game is, good luck. If he can get the ball back on the fairway, Tiger will become Tiger again."