SAN DIEGO – Seven banners showing seven past champions loom over the practice green at Torrey Pines, home of the Farmers Insurance Open. In the middle of them is Tiger Woods, six times a winner here—or, in the title sponsor’s campaign vernacular, “Class of 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2003, 1999.” Oh, he also won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey, and the Junior World.
Woods, though, is not playing the Farmers, having chosen instead to chase a reported $1.5 million appearance fee to join the four top-ranked players in the world at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, a European tour event.
“It seems odd,” said Paul Goydos, standing on the practice green at Torrey. “It bothers me when people don’t support the PGA Tour, period, whether it’s San Diego or John Deere. The PGA Tour is what’s made everybody.”
At 36 and having weathered four knee operations and of one of the worst PR disasters in sports history, Woods is not the force he once was. Still, he commands more attention than any other player, even top-ranked Luke Donald and third-ranked Rory McIlroy, both of whom will join Woods for the first 36 holes in Abu Dhabi.
The highest-ranked player at the Farmers is Dustin Johnson, No. 9, who returned from knee surgery too soon and was forced to withdraw from the Humana Challenge with back pain last week. Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan round out the only other players at Torrey ranked in the top 20. Bubba Watson, the defending champion, is No. 21. Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa and Geoff Ogilvy are among the other big names here this week.
That’s not a bad field, but it pales next to Abu Dhabi, which will feature not only the aforementioned glamour threesome, but also Lee Westwood and two-time defending champion Martin Kaymer, six of the top 10, and 11 of the top 25 in the world. As usual this time of year, the disparity begs the question of why the PGA Tour doesn’t allow appearance money.
“We don’t think it’s appropriate for our tour,” said Ty Votaw, executive vice president of communications and international affairs for the PGA Tour, who was at Torrey on Tuesday. “We see and understand why other tours need to do it, but we don’t think that really applies to the PGA Tour. We think total prize money and the [superior] average purses on our tour is the better way to go from an appearance perspective and from an integrity-of-the-competition perspective.”
According to Votaw, PGA Tour events offered more World Ranking points than their Euro tour counterparts by a more than 2-to-1 margin in 2011. There’s no mistaking which is the deeper tour. Still, that does little to take away the sting this week, when Abu Dhabi has the marquee names, starting with Donald and Woods. The only No. 1 anyone is talking about at Torrey is General Lee 01, the orange "Dukes of Hazzard" car that Watson bought at auction last week for $110,000.
“Obviously, Tiger’s won here 300 times,” said Rocco Mediate, who lost the ’08 U.S. Open to Woods in a playoff, and who dropped more than 30 pounds in the off-season. “He’s going to play at Pebble in two weeks, but we need him out here as much as he can be here. He needs to come back out here. You offer him, whatever, billions of dollars—he’s probably going to go there.”
The Abu Dhabi purse is less than half of the Farmers purse of $6 million, but HSBC has supported Tiger’s foundation, and Woods admitted Tuesday that he was influenced by the hefty sum he received simply for showing up.
“The problem isn’t that Tiger’s there, it’s that their tour is allowed to pay appearance fees,” Goydos said. “Let the guy who plays the best make the most money. It’s not right that because we have a system that’s more capitalistic, Farmers gets screwed by it.”
2012: The season of the comebacks
Widely heralded rookie Jamie Lovemark stood on the range at Waialae Country Club before the 2011 Sony Open and sprayed his drives every which way. This was the Nationwide’s 2010 Player of the Year? Something didn’t add up.
No one knew Lovemark was injured.
“I was hurt October 20 of 2010,” he said. “It was just from playing. I took a red-eye from a tournament in San Jose and drove up from West Palm Beach the same day, and then had to hit a bunch of drivers for a photo shoot, and it probably made the disc slip. I could walk around, I just couldn’t rotate.”
Suffering from a herniated disc in his lower back, Lovemark had surgery in August and watched Keegan Bradley win the PGA Championship on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. After a long wait, Lovemark began practicing again in October. He’ll play this season on a major medical extension and will have 16 tournaments to earn roughly $600,000 to keep his card. So far, so good: He made the cut at the Humana Challenge and earned just over $11,000 last week.
J.B. Holmes is making his first start after doctors discovered he had a condition called chiari malformation that can have no symptoms but that began to give Holmes vertigo at the Players Championship.
After seeing a handful of doctors, he finally had surgery as the FedEx playoffs began in August.
The operation was deemed “low risk” and seemed to go well until about a month later, when fluid collected around the scar and Holmes began vomiting. It turned out he was allergic to the adhesive that was used on a webbed titantium plate at the base of his skull. He was rushed to the ER in Campbellsville, Ky. He was in so much pain and on so many painkillers that he doesn’t remember being airlifted to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where doctors performed a second brain surgery.
“That scared everybody pretty good,” Holmes said.
He now has the plate in the back of his skull and a piece of skull the size of a quarter in his bedroom closet at home in Isleworth, Fla.
“I asked the guy if I could have it,” said Holmes, a member of the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team, “because I grew it, so I figured I may as well keep it.”
Kevin Sutherland is also coming back this week, from a neck injury that ended his 2011 season after the Players. He made the cut at the Humana but was still encouraged despite some putting issues.
“I had a putt to go seven under through 16 at the Nicklaus Course on Thursday,” said Sutherland, who did physical therapy and rested in lieu of surgery. “It was about four feet, but I missed. I missed like a five-footer to bogey the next hole, and I four-putted for double on 18. I go, ‘I waited eight months for that?’”
North Course earning respect
The North Course at Torrey Pines used to be so easy that it could have been part of the Bob Hope rotation. Not anymore. Tees were moved back and fairways were pinched, giving players something to think about besides the course record (61, by Mark Brooks in 1990 and Brandt Snedeker in 2007).
“The North I think is one of our hardest driving courses,” Mediate said. “Those fairways are tiny over there. It used to be easy, but they made it pretty stout right now. Now a couple under par is a good score there.”
In fact, the North was the hardest driving course on Tour in 2011, when players hit the fairway just 39.8% of the time, the worst percentage of the year. Charley Hoffman said the North’s fairways are so hard to hit because of the way they’re laid out and , a prevailing crosswind.
At 7,045 yards, the North Course is nearly 200 yards longer than it was when Brooks and Snedeker torched it. “The North is sneaky,” said Tim Herron. “If you don’t pay attention, you can shoot just as high there as on the South.”
Although the South Course is the longest on Tour at 7,698 yards, Tour officials rarely put the tees all the way back.
The great equalizer on both courses? The poa annua greens.
Zach on Tiger: ‘I hope he’s back.’
Woods nearly won the 2010 Chevron Challenge, but he lost a sudden-death playoff to Graeme McDowell. In his next start, Woods looked lost on his way to a T44 finish at the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open. So what should we take from the fact that he won a similarly hard-fought battle at the 2011 Chevron?
“I mean, it was an 18-man field,” said Zach Johnson, who finished second after Woods birdied the last two holes at Sherwood C.C. “I don’t know how much you can put into that. It was an elite field, and a win’s a win.
“The best part about what I witnessed was his rhythm on the course,” Johnson continued. “The putting, the full shots, the way he goes about his business, is still very much the same. And when he needed to hit a good shot, he hit a good shot. When he needed to execute a good putt, he hit a good putt. Even some of the ones that he missed were good putts, and that’s what we’ve always seen with Tiger. I’m encouraged that he’s back. I hope he’s back.”
Short game: Ryan Moore on his eye-opening 61 at the Nicklaus Course at the Humana, when he went two over for his first three holes and 13 under on his last 15: “I figured something out, apparently.” … Justin Rose, whose wife gave birth to the couple’s second child three weeks ago, begins 2012 with new woods and a new ball, but he remains with TaylorMade. … Mickelson was among the players who showed up in the pouring rain Monday for a tournament to benefit Charley Hoffman’s foundation. … Tony Navarro, caddie for Ryan Moore, on the HSBC at Abu Dhabi Golf Club: “It’s probably the best course they play over there, and that hotel is amazing. There’s marble everywhere, and you get your own butler.”