SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods rarely does anything in a simple, straightforward way on the golf course. How many times have you seen him hit 18 greens and 15 fairways during a round?
On the Thursday in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open at the Torrey Pines South Course, the 14-time major champion couldn't pull off that feat. His 4-under 68 leaves him just 3 shots behind co-leaders Brandt Snedeker and K.J. Choi, who both shot 7-under 65 in conditions perfect for low scoring.
Woods, 37, is now 115 under par for his career on the Torrey Pines South Course.
On Thursday, Tiger had four birdies, an eagle and a double-bogey in his first nine holes. After the double at the fourth hole, Woods holed out from a greenside bunker for eagle at the par-5 sixth hole. On the inward nine, the six-time winner at the San Diego event added three more birdies and two bogeys.
The eagle was the highlight of a round that was speckled with some wayward shots and poor driving.
"I made a few mistakes out there," Tiger said, "but I made some nice plays as well."
But this is the way Tiger plays. The starts and the stops, the momentum changes, are all the machinations of a lifelong grinder. Being perfect for him means getting the ball in the hole from places where few players could.
Tiger can win for the seventh time this week in San Diego off his sheer knowledge of the venue. But regardless of what happens here, he should use this event as a building block in preparation for the Masters and beyond. Time is running out on his chase of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.
But for the first time in several years, Tiger is completely healthy and confident with his golf swing. In just his second start of the 2013 season, there is some rust on his game. Yet he's more certain of his swing now than in the past several years.
Still on Thursday, particularly early on, he had a two-way miss with the driver, but those are issues he can fix over the next few days.
There is more to his game than just these factors. His eagle at No. 6 was the kind of jolt to his round that we had become accustomed to seeing throughout his career. As much as he likes to talk about the nuances of course setups, green complexes and the weather, Tiger's success is closely linked to his uncanny imagination and ability to make the unexpected shot at critical junctures in his round.
At the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, we saw how his chances of winning that tournament were derailed when he couldn't hit the amazing recovery shot from the pot bunker at the sixth hole.
Many of us were surprised at his failure to pull off that nearly impossible shot.
The instances of Tiger doing the miraculous are so numerous that it's harder to recall a time when he won by being ordinary. But ordinary greatness -- fairways and greens -- is how he became the greatest player of his generation.
For him to beat Rory McIlroy and most of these really good young players, he needs to recapture that ordinary good. To beat Snedeker and Choi this week and what is shaping up to be a packed leaderboard of seasoned winners and upstarts, Woods will likely need both the plodding, meticulous deconstruction of the golf course and great imagination.
It's been a wonderful combination for him through the years.