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SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods hates the question, even though the answer should be simple enough.
Is he back?
Woods was asked that when he ended his 749-day drought by winning his World Challenge at the end of 2011. The question came up in various forms last year after each of his wins at Bay Hill, Memorial and the AT&T National at Congressional. And it was inevitable after winning for a record eighth time at Torrey Pines.
Woods will be "back" when no else is in front of him.
The answer he gave Monday after a four-shot win in the Farmers Insurance Open was that he "never left." But that's not entirely accurate, because Woods was the undisputed No. 1 player in golf for the better part of five years and now he's not. Everything he did last year, Rory McIlroy did better.
You can believe Woods when he says he is excited about the year.
Torrey Pines was his fourth win in his last 16 starts on the PGA Tour. Perhaps a better indication of his game is consistency. He has finished in the top 10 in six of his last seven tournaments around the world, which doesn't sound like that big of a deal except that he hasn't had a stretch like that since he "left" at the end of 2009.
So where is he now? It's too early to say.
Golf is off to a quirky start this year. Four weeks into the season, one tournament finished on Tuesday because of wind and another tournament finished on Monday because of fog. It becomes even more stilted with the schedule of the two biggest stars.
The Pebble Beach National Pro-Am tournament director told the San Francisco Chronicle that Woods will not be playing next week. Woods' caddie told the Los Angeles Daily News that he tried to talk him into playing Riviera but to no avail. So Woods has 23 days off until playing the Match Play Championship. That's not a surprise. McIlroy, meanwhile, is in the middle of a four-week break and he won't show up until Match Play, either.
So right when Woods generates a buzz by winning Torrey Pines, golf will have to do without him until the end of next month.
It's tempting to make bold declarations about the rest of the year based on how Woods played last week, though the finish left just as many questions. And remember, it was only a week ago that Woods missed the cut in Abu Dhabi. Give it time.
Still, there was something inevitable about this win, beyond the location. Woods took over the tournament during a four-hole stretch in the second round when he rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt, hit 5-iron to 5 feet for eagle, had a two-putt birdie and then one-hopped his wedge off the flag for another birdie.
His lead went from two shots after 36 holes, to four shots after 54 holes, to six shots at the close of business Sunday with 11 holes left.
"After last week, I think he was irritated and I think he was a little upset at how he played," Hunter Mahan said Monday morning. "I think he wanted to make a statement, and there's not many guys in golf who can go to a tournament and make a statement, but he is. I think he's making one this week, and I think he's going to do everything he can to make this a double-digit win for himself and just kind of reclaim his dominance on the tour."
It looked as if that would be the case when Woods two-putted the 13th hole for an eight-shot lead Monday. What happened the rest of the way was awkward. Woods hit two tee shots that barely traveled more than 200 yards — one that was pulled into the trees and caromed into a patch of ice plant (double bogey), another that was a chunk pop-up and left him a 4-iron to the green and 50 yards behind two guys he had been blasting by all day.
"This one is going to irk him," Nick Faldo said, adding that Woods still had demons with his driving. Maybe so. The better measure of his driving is when the shots actually mean something. Woods looked more interested in getting off the golf course than winning by double digits.
Winning was never in doubt, however, and that's what should be remembered.
The real measure, of course, is the majors.
Woods winning at Torrey Pines, with a red shirt under a black sweater vest, was a reminder of how long it had been since his last major title. It was five years ago that he won on a Monday afternoon at Torrey Pines to capture the U.S. Open in a playoff, his 14th major.
Regular tour wins are still meaningful. If nothing else, they build confidence.
Then again, Woods won in his final start before the Masters and U.S. Open last year and faded badly on the weekend. What makes him excited about the year is his short game, for he says that's what let him down at the last three majors in 2012. He was tied for the lead going into the weekend at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and failed to finish in the top 10. He was four shots behind going into Saturday at the British Open and didn't break par on the weekend.
"It's getting up-and-down at major championships," Woods said. "You're not going to hit the ball great every day. They're the most difficult situations and most difficult setups that we face. You're going to have to get up and down. You're going to have to save. You're going to have to make a 10-footer for par. You're going to have to make a tough up-and-down, and I wasn't doing that. Consequently, those 74s and 75s should have been 70s or 71s. And that's how you win those tournaments."
That's what he will find out later this year.
In the meantime, he is still working to get himself back until everyone else is behind him.