News & Opinion

Stars turn out for Torrey Pines in 1st big test of year

Tiger Woods makes his 2020 debut at a site where he has hoisted so many trophies, but that’s not the only reason why this week's Farmers Insurance Open is the first must-see event of the year

To say this so early in the year seems head-scratchingly odd: The most meaningful event on the calendar thus far on the PGA Tour will be the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. That’s this week. At the end of January.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the norm was the Tour didn’t really begin until the Florida Swing. That’s when the game’s big names emerged from hibernation, shook off the holiday rust and gathered in one spot at least two or three times in February and March.

The thinking was that it was roughly 10 weeks until the Masters and Florida looked like a logical time and place to start to prepare for the year’s first major championship.

Torrey Pines
Torrey Pines, the San Diego municipal complex that runs along the Pacific, proves to be a magnet for the PGA Tour's elite golfers and thrill-seeking paragliders alike.

But the reality of the Tour’s oft-discussed and oft-scrutinized wraparound season set in, and a number of players began to realize that by the time the Tour hit Florida, the season was practically halfway over.

To start so late put even the best players way behind in – dare we say it? – FedEx Cup points. Yes, we said it. Players want to win the FedEx Cup and the $15 million that goes with it. They don’t want to get to Florida and be 500 – or more – points behind.

Plus, now that the Players Championship has moved to the second week in March, players – even the best ones – don’t want to go into it cold.

That’s why some of the top golfers enter an event or two in the fall, particularly the tournaments in Korea, China and Japan, which feature limited fields and no-cut formats. It’s just to try to keep some kind of pace until the big events of the spring and summer in which everyone tries to make a big push.

Torrey Pines will look like a West Coast version of the Honda Classic, one of the differences being that Tiger Woods rarely plays the Honda these days. Woods is in the field at the Farmers, which is his usual calendar-year debut, and with good reason.

Woods rarely enters tournaments in which he doesn’t play well, and Torrey Pines is one of his most successful venues. He has won the Farmers seven times, plus the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines’ South Course. But the last time he won the Farmers was 2013. Woods, who comes off a victory at the Zozo Championship in Japan in the fall, will be under a microscope this week to see where his game stacks up in a big-event atmosphere.

And it’s not insignificant that the 2021 U.S. Open will be conducted at Torrey Pines. It could be one of the mitigating factors as to why a number of top players are in the Farmers field.

Players will want to update their yardage books and have a fresh charting of the greens and green complexes, even though the conditions at the Farmers won’t be set up anything similar to next year’s U.S. Open.

World No. 2 Rory McIlroy is in the field, as is defending champion Justin Rose, who is No. 9 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Jon Rahm, No. 3 in the world, who won the Farmers in 2017, is entered along with No. 8 Xander Schauffele, Gary Woodland, two-time winner Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson. Hideki Matsuyama, Joaquin Niemann, C.T. Pan, Sungjae Im and Byeong Hun An – all of whom played for the International team in last month’s Presidents Cup – also will compete this week.

Curiously, Phil Mickelson is in the field after taking a one-year hiatus from his hometown tournament because he said the South Course at Torrey Pines was too difficult for him at age 48.

This year, anyway, the Farmers likely will supplant the Genesis Invitational as the West Coast tournament with the most stars. Woods will host the Genesis, a tournament that he skipped from for years because he didn’t play well at Riviera Country Club, where he made his first PGA Tour debut as a 16-year-old amateur from nearby Cypress, Calif.

The Farmers will be important this year for a couple of reasons. One, is to make the West Coast relevant again. Brooks Koepka, No. 1 in the world, Justin Thomas (No. 4) and Dustin Johnson (No. 5) aren’t in the field at the Farmers, which is up against the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in the middle of the European Tour’s three-week Desert Swing.

The bigger reason is that it matters who wins, especially if it’s one of the stars. If one of the big names takes the title, it will be an early statement victory that will demonstrate the winner will be a force to be reckoned with in 2020. If one of the second-tier players wins, it will say he is ready to win the biggest events against the best players.

But if Woods wins, he would surpass Sam Snead as the winningest PGA Tour player of all time, at 83 career victories. More importantly, it would signal that once again he is capable of being a major force – and not just at Augusta National.