They’ve played the San Diego Open under one name or another since Ted Kroll won the inaugural in 1952, but the sun has probably never shone on the Southern California cliffs the way it did last week. The sky has never been so blue, the shimmer of the sea so brilliant, the smell of flop sweat so pungent. It would have been the best week ever, if the Farmers Insurance Open hadn’t had to contend with the longest shadows in golf.
The shadows, stretching 8,456 miles across 12 time zones from an emirate on the Persian Gulf, belonged to a revitalized Tiger Woods and a buffed-up Rory McIlroy, playing in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. And while their shadows receded a few hours before the Farmers wrapped up on Sunday, there are probably 10 sports fans who know that Woods and McIlroy did not win in Abu Dhabi for every golf geek who can name the second-year pro who blew a seven-stroke lead at Torrey Pines Golf Course before losing to a very surprised Brandt Snedeker on the second hole of sudden death. (Hint: It’s Kyle Stanley.)
How did the Farmers, blessed with network television coverage and a non-NFL weekend, wind up playing second fiddle to the newest desert stop on the European tour? Well, you can start with the appearance fee of $1.5 million that Abu Dhabi reportedly paid Woods. The PGA Tour prohibits the payment of show-up money, so Woods had to balance his history of success at Torrey Pines—six Tour victories plus his legendary “broken leg” triumph at the 2008 U.S. Open—against the cash and interests of Abu Dhabi’s title sponsor (and Tiger Woods Foundation benefactor), banking giant HSBC.
Tiger chose the Arabian nights. So did McIlroy, who showed up at Abu Dhabi Golf Club with an expanded chest and bulging biceps, and world No. 1 Luke Donald, who was rested up from counting his proceeds as the leading money winner on both tours in 2011. Abu Dhabi, despite paying $3.3 million less than the Farmers in prize money, wound up with six of the top 10 golfers in the World Ranking and a marquee pairing of Woods, McIlroy and Donald for its first two rounds.
San Diego’s field was not exactly putrid. You had three-time champion and hometown favorite Phil Mickelson, stutter-stepping PGA champ Keegan Bradley, FedEx Cup winner Bill Haas and fan favorites Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson. But Haas was the only headliner to contend, leaving spectators to puzzle over a leader board laden with Tour rookies and journeyman pros. In the press tent last Saturday, someone asked veteran columnist Art Spander how he was doing. “I’d be doing better,” he said, “if I knew who any of these guys were.”
The poster boy for unfamiliarity was 549th-ranked John Huh, a 21-year-old of Korean descent making his second PGA Tour appearance. Huh’s surname, pronounced precisely as it’s spelled, brought out the Abbott and Costello in spectators, who responded with a slack-jawed “Huh?” to questions like, “Who tied for sixth at the Farmers?” But they were equally clueless about rookies Sang-Moon Bae of South Korea, who played in the next-to-last twosome on Sunday, and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, who caught the CBS eye with a third-round 65. Said Blixt, “I really enjoy playing in front of an audience.”
The golfing world, one hated to remind Blixt, was mostly focused on Abu Dhabi. Woods, getting more comfortable with his fourth-generation swing, was trying to win his first full-field event in more than two years. McIlroy, his heir apparent, wanted to prove that his eight-stroke U.S. Open win at Congressional was no fluke. (Donald, bless him, looked like he was simply trying to keep his head above the waves of charisma trailing the other two.) Thanks to the 12-hour time difference, their efforts played live to North America’s after-midnight audience of soft-porn viewers and home-shopping addicts.
Nevertheless, Golf Channel’s reruns were on all the flat screens in Torrey’s lodge and hospitality tents. Any fairway marshal could tell you that Woods was looking like the Tiger of old, hitting fairways with controlled cuts and stingers and making enough putts to hang around the lead. Spectators on the cliffside holes knew that McIlroy would have shared the second-round lead if he hadn’t absentmindedly brushed sand away from a ball resting on fringe grass, drawing a two-stroke penalty.
Torrey’s tale, up to the point where Stanley triple-bogeyed the 72nd hole, was flatter. Mickelson, playing his second tournament of 2012—and distracted by a seizure episode that briefly hospitalized one of his daughters—opened with a 77 that he deemed “pathetic,” missed Torrey’s 36-hole cut for the first time in a decade and confessed that he was having trouble taking his game from the practice tee to the course. “It all feels good,” he said, “but the only thing that matters out here is the score. And right now I’m not getting low scores.” Another former Ryder Cupper, J.B. Holmes, returned from off-season brain surgery by shooting a first-round 76 followed by a 69 on Torrey’s North course, which left him out of the money too.
If you wanted buzz, you had to talk Tour politics. At a compulsory player meeting on Tuesday evening, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem laid out a possible change to the Tour’s eligibility system, a change that would do away with Q school exemptions and make the soon-to-be-renamed Nationwide tour the principal route to a PGA Tour card. The players’ response to the plan, which might also change the Tour’s season to an autumn-to-autumn format similar to the European tour’s, was mixed.
“I don’t know if I have an opinion either way,” said Mickelson, whose indifference probably owes to the fact that he won his first Tour event as an amateur and never had to endure the Q school meat grinder.
“I quite like the way it is now,” said former U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy, “but the Tour has a history of making pretty sensible decisions, so I’ll probably go with them and trust them on it.”
As the week went by, doubters answered the Q school query with a simple “Huh?” Torrey’s most surprising contender, they pointed out, had squeaked through three stages of Q school to get his Tour card. Now, in only his second tournament, he had fans barking “Huh!” when he stiffed an iron shot or sank a putt. “I know Boo Weekley has a boo sound,” Huh told reporters on Saturday afternoon. “I’ll be happy if people go huh, huh, huh for me.”
But let’s be honest. The fourth week of 2012 wasn’t about Huh, who shot 74 on Sunday, or Snedeker, who shot three rounds of 67 or less to climb into Sunday’s playoff. It wasn’t even about the exciting—some would say reckless—play of Stanley, who before Sunday was best known as the unlucky rookie who was denied his first Tour win when Steve Stricker birdied the final hole of the 2011 John Deere Classic after a miraculous fairway bunker shot.
No, the main event was Abu Dhabi, where Woods shared the third-round lead and a final-round pairing with a Hollywood handsome, not-to-be-taken-seriously Englishman by the name of Robert Rock. Everybody knew how that would turn out—with Tiger triumphant, restored, redeemed and ready to resume his plunder of major titles. But this time everybody was wrong. Woods lost his rhythm and temper on Sunday, hitting only two fairways and six greens on his way to a par 72 and a tie for third. Rock, meanwhile, survived a final-hole bogey to edge McIlroy by a stroke—remember that two-stroke penalty?—and win for the second time in his 10-year European tour career.
“It was a day where I was just a touch off,” said a composed Woods, who is scheduled to make his first U.S. appearance of the year at next week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. “Something to look at and something to try to figure out.” McIlroy, fresh off a chip-in and an off-the-grandstand birdie on the final hole, was more upbeat, calling it “a good day’s work.”
Sometimes, though, it’s about getting the last laugh—or the last tear—and that honor went to the tournament on the cliffs. Having already spun his third shot on the par-5 18th into a green-front pond, Stanley needed to get down in two from the back of the green to save his Farmers victory. Instead, he left his first putt short and missed the five-footer to win. “It’s not a hard golf hole,” he said afterward, his voice breaking. “I could probably play it a thousand times and not make an 8.”
He teared up. “It’s tough. It’s really tough to take.”
You had to feel sorry for Stanley. Assuming, in theory, that you weren’t in the sky above the Atlantic, feeling sorry for yourself.