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Tiger returns to strong field, course

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SAN DIEGO—Rory McIlroy had a week to remember on his first trip to San Diego.

He carried Northern Ireland's flag during the opening ceremony of the Junior World Championship and later had a picture taken at Torrey Pines with a certain Mr. Woods.

That was 20 years ago.

And it was Earl Woods, the father of Tiger.

“Tiger was probably off winning majors,” McIlroy said with a laugh on the eve of his debut in the Farmers Insurance Open.

McIlroy saw enough of the South course—10 holes on Monday and then the pro-am yesterday—to appreciate why this public course along the Pacific bluffs has been known for years as Woods' personal playground.

Along with a Junior World title as a teenager, Woods has won the PGA Tour event seven times. And his most famous title at Torrey was that 2008 U.S. Open for his 14th major.

“You need to be a tremendous ball striker. You need to be a great iron player, a great short game,” McIlroy noted.

"And those have been the hallmarks of his game over the past 20-odd years.

“So I can see why he [Tiger] has done so well around here,” he added.

Woods gets his next crack when he makes his 2019 debut at Torrey Pines, with a chance to win consecutive PGA Tour starts for the first time in six years.

Never mind that his last start was four months ago at the season-ending Tour Championship.

All that did was ratchet up the expectations—a far cry from a year ago when expectations were replaced by curiosity.

Woods started last season after recovering from a fourth back surgery, unsure how he would respond from gouging out of thick rough or how much he would be able to play in the early part of the year.

“Way different," Woods said. ”Last year was very fluid, and it was like trying to hit a moving target.

"It was quite interesting to try and figure it all out as the year progressed.

“This year I have a great understanding of what I can and can't do,” he added.

“There's not uncertainty that I had last year after what I did at the end of last year.”

Woods brings a big buzz to a tournament that already has a lot going for it—good weather, gorgeous views of the Pacific, the first network coverage of the year (CBS), and the open week before the Super Bowl.

Phil Mickelson is skipping his hometown event for the first time in 28 years, though there is no shortage of star power with Woods and McIlroy, Jordan Spieth playing for the first time in four years, Xander Schauffele, Masters champion Patrick Reed, and Justin Rose, who remains No. 1 in the world.

This is the first strong test of the year with a North course that has been upgraded and a South course renowned for hosting the U.S. Open in 2008, with another one coming in 2021.

McIlroy only had seen the South course on television. He was just 10 when he played the Junior World, not old enough to compete at Torrey.

Instead, he played at Presidio Hills in downtown, where he made a hole-in-one and tied for eighth with a group that included Tony Finau.

But it has felt familiar to him this week.

“I feel like I've watched this tournament a lot on TV, whether it be U.S. Open or this tournament over the years,” McIlroy noted.

“It's funny, you get a sort of perception of a golf course from TV," he added. "But then you play it and it does play very differently than I thought it was going to play.”

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