The village of La Jolla is the epitome of laid-back California cool, but the tournament it hosted last week was full of tension: in Tiger Woods’s ongoing struggle to reconcile his new life with his former greatness; between the economic haves and the have-nots; in the battle for control waged by micromanaging busybodies at the PGA Tour; between the USGA’s role as steward of the game and the self-interests of certain yippy Tour players trying to protect their livelihoods; and, finally, between an outdoor sport and the whims of Mother Nature. Tiger Woods ultimately took this Farmers Insurance Open in a fog-delayed Monday finish, providing one undisputed winner in an otherwise exceedingly messy tournament week.
Woods’s 75th career victory—think about that for a minute—was noteworthy not for where it came but for how it was accomplished. Woods has now won eight times as a pro at Torrey Pines, including the 2008 U.S. Open. That defining victory was his last in a major championship. Scandal, injury and swing changes would ensue. Last year Woods got his career back on track with three victories, but he was still lacking the seemingly supernatural scoring ability of his prime. In 2012 he ranked 35th in putting strokes gained, 83rd in sand-save percentage and 140th in greens in regulation from 75 to 100 yards. Last week, Woods drove the ball well on a rain-softened Torrey Pines, and it’s worth noting that he hit driver at almost every opportunity, whereas last season his club selection skewed conservative, a kind of prevent defense that pushed him to sixth in total driving. But the revelation was that Tiger has his touch back. He was brilliant on and around the greens, and deadly with a variety of wedge shots from the fairway. During a third-round 69 he had three kick-in birdies on full-swing wedges.
Woods said last week that his increased efficiency is a result of devoting more practice time to the area within 100 yards of the stick, which has been made possible by a growing comfort in his long game. A member of Tiger’s inner circle points to a breakthrough range session Woods had shortly after Christmas, the lessons of which were then ingrained with thousands of practice balls. “We’re working on the same things; it’s just that I’ve gotten better at it,” Woods said on Sunday of his wedge game. “I just need time and more reps, and everything’s starting to come together.”
At the same time, another California native was simply trying to keep things from falling apart. Phil Mickelson barely made the cut and finished well behind Woods, but as a California resident he’ll pay federal and state income tax, along with tariffs for Social Security, disability and unemployment from his winnings. Mickelson had kvetched about his tax bill following his final round at the Humana Challenge, insinuating that it may force him to abandon California. Given that Phil’s income is in the neighborhood of $50 million a year, the ensuing reaction was something less than sympathetic. The timing of his mini-rant was all the more curious given that it came on the eve of his hometown event, putting a damper on what is traditionally a weeklong lovefest. But alarm bells had been sounding in San Diego going back to Dec. 18, when Mickelson announced that he was withdrawing his stake in the new ownership group of the Padres. He was on the hook for $40 million for 5% of the team, and in backing out he said, “I’ve been born and raised here, but at this moment I’m not able to make that kind of long-term commitment to the city and to the team.”
Phil has plenty of rascal in him, but to his credit he realized that his tax laments were public relations hara-kiri. At his pretournament press conference he was contrite and self-deprecating, saying it was insensitive for a man of his vast good fortune to complain about taxes. Is Mickelson really going to leave the Golden State? “There is no plan,” says a close friend of his. “There’s never been a plan.” Still, Arizona would be the likely destination. He went to school at Arizona State, where his brother, Tim, is now coach of the golf team, and Phil owns several golf courses there.
That Mickelson made more news in the pressroom than on the golf course was of a piece with the entire week of backstage intrigue. On Jan. 22 the Tour held its first players’ meeting since the USGA and R&A announced its proposed ban on anchoring putters. The gravity of the would-be rule change was driven home by the presence of Tim Clark, he of the broomstick putter, who winged in for the meeting even though he wasn’t playing at Torrey.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s constituency is the players, but he is a traditionalist who would like to uphold the USGA as the arbiter of the sport’s rules. The day after the meeting he held an anguished press conference during which he lamented his awkward position. The Tour can ignore any USGA dictate and set its own conditions of competition, but parsing the commish’s circuitous statements gives the impression that the Tour will go along with the USGA, even as Finchem feels for the affected players. “It’s a very different kind of issue, and it stirs a lot of strong feelings,” Finchem said. “Personally, I view the professional game as being the strongest it’s ever been. So I don’t like to see distractions. But it’s not a perfect world.”
Finchem’s sensitivity on this issue was at odds with his organization’s clumsy efforts to control the digital media. On the day of the Farmers’ first round, members of the golf press were sent an e-mail threatening to pull the credentials of all on-site personnel of any news organization that violated the Tour regulation that prohibits “live play-by-play.” A follow-up e-mail stated, “As a guideline, more than one or two competition-related posts per hole per player would be considered play-by-play.” The suits in Ponte Vedra Beach don’t seem to understand that the war is over and the Internet won.
Sports fans want—demand—instant gratification, and outlets like GOLF.com provide it with live blogs that are especially popular on Thursdays and Fridays, when folks at work have access to computers but not TVs. Reporters’ tweets also bring followers of the game closer to the action. The Tour’s fatwa was particularly ill-timed considering that over the first two days at the Farmers, play was also conducted on Torrey Pines’s North course, for which no ShotTracker information is provided on PGATour.com. Live blogs and tweets were an indispensable way for fans to get, well, play-by-play. Why on earth would the PGA Tour want to rob its devotees of the ability to read about their heroes? Oh, Torrey Pines marked the unveiling of PGATour.com’s live streaming of the CBS telecast, which will be offered at 17 more tournaments this year. Would the Tour—a 501(c)(6) nonprofit—really try to hamstring the media simply to drive traffic to its own website? Only its army of lavishly paid vice presidents knows for sure.
Woods’s brilliance at Torrey should have been a respite from all the melodrama, but even his week was tinged with outside-the-ropes concerns. He continues to be linked romantically to skier Lindsey Vonn, and after a second-round 65 one reporter delicately (and indirectly) broached the subject, asking Woods, “When your life off the course is balanced and things are good, does that reflect in your play?”
Woods now treats his personal life as a no-fly zone and said only, “Well, I feel good right now. I’m leading the tournament.”
He continued leading, right to the end. Ultimately, that’s the answer to many of golf’s biggest questions, and the cure for most of its ills. If Woods can regain his dominance, that will be the only story that matters.