All eyes on Tiger as big guns take aim across the globe
There was a time when nobody had higher expectations of Tiger Woods than the man himself.
But just days after Rory McIlroy boldly predicted that the 14-time Major winner looked so good in a pre-Christmas practice round that he was ready to "stun the world again", Woods (42) sounded a note of caution ahead of his long-awaited PGA Tour comeback in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines today.
Even when struggling with injuries at the height of his career, the Californian never countenanced accepting anything less than victory.
Last night, he admitted that following spinal fusion surgery, he's simply looking forward to playing "without a burning sensation" in his foot. "I haven't felt this good in years," he said.
The American has not completed four rounds in a PGA Tour event for two-and-a-half years and given that he is now pain-free, he declared that his only goal right now is to get his game in shape for the Masters.
"I am just trying to build towards April," the current world No 647 said.
"I haven't done that in a very long time. That's been my schedule from '96 on. There's no reason to change that."
As for his expectations, he admitted he'll be stepping into the unknown on the long and punishing North Course at Torrey Pines today.
"Yeah, my expectations have tempered a little bit because I haven't played," Woods told a news conference at the public course where he limped to the most recent of his 14 Major wins in the 2008 US Open.
"When I came back off my ACL injury in '08 and started playing in '09, it was nine months. But I'd been playing a full schedule prior to that.
"Here I haven't been playing a full schedule since 2015. It's been a long time and to be honest with you, I just want to start playing on Tour again and get into the 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'll just go and play. So I am going to grind it. Give it everything I have, try to put the ball in the right positions, make some putts and try to work my way up the 'board.
"As far as understanding what it takes to win out here, I don't know what the number is going to be. I used to be pretty good at that. But I haven't even seen a lot of these young guys play. I only met Jon (Rahm) yesterday for the first time."
The game has changed utterly since he won the last of his 79 PGA Tour titles in Akron in 2013.
It's even changed since the last time he played on the PGA Tour.
Defending champion Rahm had not even won a Tour event when Woods teed it up at Torrey Pines last year.
But even though he now has four and could overtake Dustin Johnson as world number one with a successful defence, the 23-year-old Basque knows that Woods is the only story in town.
It's all about Woods's build-up to the Masters, and that's music to the ears of Rory McIlroy, who is more than 8,000 miles away at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic hoping to win for the first time in 16 months.
McIlroy is also hoping to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National, and he believes Woods's return will ease the pressure on his shoulders when he drives down Magnolia Lane in 66 days' time.
"I think it will be a bit easier this year, if only because Tiger will be back," McIlroy said. "Obviously I never go into tournaments under the radar anymore but at least a little bit of the spotlight - or a lot of the spotlight - is taken away by him, so I can go about my business and get ready for the tournament."
He'll be getting ready for bed when Woods tees it up with Charley Hoffman and Patrick Reed in San Diego tonight.
But like the rest of world golf, he'll be checking the scores first thing in the morning.
"I think everyone is intrigued to see," McIlroy said. "Even scrolling through Instagram this morning and seeing some of the clips from yesterday, seeing how he's swinging, seeing how he's moving; I think everyone wants to see how he gets on.
"Hopefully his body lets him play a nice, consistent run of events for the next few years and we'll see where that gets him."
While McIlroy is joined in Dubai by Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Paul Dunne, Woods's comeback will be witnessed at close quarters by Seamus Power and compatriots Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry, who are making their first starts of 2018.
- Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Live, Sky Sports, 4.0
- Farmers Insurance Open, Live, Sky Sports, 7.0pm