The 2013 golf season just got a lot more interesting. Tiger Woods is poised to kick off his PGA Tour campaign with a win at his favorite stomping ground, Torrey Pines.
No one puts a charge into golf like Tiger, but it’s still premature to hand him the Farmers Insurance Open trophy. The tournament, delayed by fog and rain on Saturday, didn’t finish on Sunday night. Play was called due to darkness with most of the field still on the South course. Woods, playing in the final threesome, is 17 under, six shots ahead of Brandt Snedeker and Nick Watney with 11 holes left to play. (The final round resumes Monday at 2:10 p.m. ET; Golf Channel will broadcast it until 4 p.m. ET, when CBS takes over.)
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These aren’t the old days, when Tiger was automatic once he got in the lead and you could just concede the victory. Tiger isn’t the same, but he’s still pretty good. He won three times in 2012 and ranks second in the world.
And this is Torrey Pines. Tiger has won this event six times, the last time in 2008. He also won the 2008 United States Open at Torrey Pines. He is six shots ahead with 11 holes to play. What do you think is going to happen Monday? Is somebody really going to catch the greatest player of his era with that kind of lead on a course where he’s won seven times?
Not likely, but it will be a big story either way. If Tiger doesn’t win, it’s the upset of the year. If he does win, it’s the golf story of the year so far. A victory would amount to a shot across the bow of his new Nike stable mate, Rory McIlroy. Maybe Tiger isn’t going to let that No. 1 world ranking go without a fight. Rory and Tiger were joking around about competing against each other in their new television commercial. Maybe their rivalry, so far mostly a superficial one, will transfer to the golf course.
Woods bogeyed the final hole in Sunday’s third round to shoot 69, the second-best score of the third round. Only Aaron Baddeley, who shot 68, did better.
“It was a long day,” Woods said of his 25-hole effort. “I played well today. I’m pretty pleased I was able to build on my lead. I’ve got a six-shot lead, that’s a positive.”
Tiger looks very good, but he hasn’t won yet. Kyle Stanley proved last year at Torrey Pines that no lead is safe when he lost a seven-shot edge on Sunday. He needed only a double bogey on the reachable par-5 finishing hole to win; he made triple.
Despite those three wins last year, questions still hover around Woods like those annoying hang-gliders over Torrey Pines. Tiger looked like a world beater in some early major rounds last year, especially in the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, but then appeared to lose all confidence on the weekends. This would be PGA Tour victory No. 75, and the seventh pro victory of his career at Torrey Pines. He has also won seven tournaments at Firestone Country Club and Bay Hill. Sam Snead holds the PGA Tour record for most times winning at the same event — eight times at Greensboro. This win would put Tiger within range of matching that remarkable feat, and he’ll get three cracks at it every year. That’s amazing in itself.
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It’s also worth noting that Woods has won at least four times in every season that has included a victory at this event.
Woods wasted little time on Sunday establishing his presence. He stuffed a wedge shot close at the second hole for birdie and then did the same at the third, batting in a two-footer. Just that quick, his lead grew to four shots.
He gave one back at the fifth when he missed the green, played a mediocre chip and missed a six-foot par putt. It was only a momentary lapse, however. Tiger reached the par-5 sixth in two with a fairway wood and two-putted for another birdie; he’d played the par 5s in 10 under to that point.
Woods hit it to five feet for another birdie at the 10th, regaining a four-stroke lead. It’s way too early to declare a signature shot, but Woods dropped one at the par-5 13th. He played the hole perfectly, laying up to a small flat spot in the fairway. Then he dropped a wedge shot past the pin and spun it back to two feet. Moments later, after a bogey by Nick Watney, Tiger had a six-stroke lead.
His only serious glitch came on the 18th hole, the site of his famous U.S. Open heroics in ’08. This time, his tee shot plugged near the lip of a fairway bunker and Woods was able to advance the ball only about 60 yards with a 9-iron, hitting a high shot into a buried lie in the right rough. From there, he found the greenside bunker, blasted out to 10 feet and over-read a right-to-left par putt, making a bogey that left him four shots ahead of Brad Fritsch after 54 holes.
After a 15-minute break, the players went back on the course for the final round, and Woods got off to a quick start again. He birdied three of the first six holes. At the sixth, he knocked down a 28-foot birdie putt to widen his lead to six. He parred the seventh hole before play was finally stopped for the evening.
His performance has been impressive so far, and it adds a little meaning to one of his generic pre-tournament comments that no one put much emphasis on.
“I’m excited about this year,” Woods said early in the week.
On Sunday night, everyone else was, too.