LA JOLLA, Calif. With apologies to Martin Kaymer and Jhonny Vegas and all the other global golfers who have kept us entertained throughout January, the golf season started on Thursday in sun-kissed La Jolla, Calif., as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson made their domestic debuts at Torrey Pines.
Woods shot a coulda-been-better 69 on the easier North Course, afterward pronouncing himself happy with his ball-striking, despite driving it into the rough and making disappointing pars on all four three-shotters. Mickelson tussled with the South the venue for Tiger's myth-making victory at the 2008 U.S. Open and had a typical Phil round that included only three pars on the back nine. He scrambled adroitly enough to get in with a 67 that tied the low round of the day on the South, leaving him in fifth place, three strokes behind leader Sunghoon Kang, a big-hitting, largely unknown 24-year-old Korean rookie who earned his place on the PGA Tour by way of Q School. Bold-faced names Rickie Fowler (65) and John Daly (67) made a little noise, but this day belonged to Woods and Mickelson, Southern California kids who have been competing at Torrey Pines going back to their days in junior golf.
"Anytime Tiger and Phil are in the field, you know it's a big event," said Woods's playing partner Anthony Kim, who short-gamed his way to a scrappy 68. "There's a different energy."
Mickelson scraped off the rust last week in Abu Dhabi, so Woods's first competitive round since his Sunday collapse at December's World Challenge was always going to attract the most scrutiny. Tiger hit only five fairways but afterward called the North one of toughest driving courses on Tour, pointing out variously the narrowness of the fairways, how fast they're running, that they're "angled," and that an unusual cross-wind was blowing. But no excuses.
He did hit 15 greens in regulation, but coming out of the juicy rough he struggled with his distance control and repeatedly left himself above the hole on the sometimes bumpy greens. Woods predicted that the North Course would ultimately play two strokes harder than the South; asked if he was happy with his 69, he said, "I'm happy with the way I played." In other words, no. But Kim was still impressed by what he saw. "His swing is really coming around," said AK, whose work in the gym has him down to trousers with a 30-inch waist. "He's starting to hit some golf shots that are reminiscent of what he used to do."
While Woods remains a work in progress, Mickelson is feeling chipper about his game after grinding hard last week in Abu Dhabi with his swing coach Butch Harmon. "Last week gave me a good foundation, where I was able to work on my game in good weather with good practice facilities with Butch Harmon," Mickelson said. "That allowed me to get my fundamentals down and the golf swing right where I wanted it. So heading into this week, I was talking yesterday about how I felt it was refinement rather than swing changes or anything. I felt like today I was hitting shots, hitting little fades, hitting draws and that was fun."
Mickelson, who lives in nearby Rancho Santa Fe, was also buoyed by having his wife, Amy, follow on foot for the first time since the 2009 Masters, shortly before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "I forgot how much I missed having her out here," Phil said.
Mickelson and Woods both measure their careers by major championships, but after their very different struggles last year, Torrey is an important week for them to generate some early season momentum. Looking at the big picture of his in-transition game, Tiger said, "It's getting better. It's an evolution. Today I felt like I was able to control the ball most of the day and hit some really good shots."
Opening-day jitters are now gone. Expect both Woods and Mickelson to keep going lower, but Tiger has his work cut out for him if he's going to catch Phil, who has earned a pretty nice head-start.