SAN DIEGO – Nestled against the cliffs of the Torrey Pines Gliderport, the tee on the par-5 13th hole is the most remote part of the South Course. Spectators can't get back there, which makes it a welcome respite for Tiger Woods.
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The scene on 13 was especially serene for Woods in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open on Thursday. He'd just made a nine-foot putt to go five under par. The wind was down, the weather warm. A buzzing sound got his attention, and he and playing partner Nick Watney looked up and smiled as a pair of remote-controlled fliers, each made to look like a rocket-man, swooped and dove through the air. Woods teed up his ball, and with a slight breeze at his back, he scalded a drive 330 yards down the middle, setting up another birdie to go six under par.
Despite drilling a fan on No. 4 and making a double bogey, plus a few late bogeys, Woods served notice that he's brought his A-game this week in search of his eighth professional victory at Torrey Pines. He holed a sand shot for eagle on the par-5 sixth hole, salvaged an ugly par from the sand on 18, and shot 68 to trail co-leaders K.J. Choi (tougher South Course) and Brandt Snedeker (North) by three.
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"I'm happy with it," said Woods, who missed the cut in Abu Dhabi last week, his first start of 2013, after being penalized for taking an incorrect drop. "I made a few mistakes out there, but I made some nice plays as well."
Overnight rain gave way to perfect weather Thursday, and with the greens receptive and the fairways rolling out, 112 players were at even par or better.
Woods said he took six weeks off before jumping back into competition last week, playing alongside No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who also missed the cut. Although Woods said he played about the same Thursday as he did in Abu Dhabi, he looked sharper at Torrey and on the 14th hole he had a putt to get to seven under. He missed, and bogeyed the 15th and 17th holes after right and left misses off the tee, respectively.
Due to injuries and his sex scandal, Woods has played Torrey Pines just once since he won the 2008 U.S. Open here on an injured left leg. He teed it up in 2011, when he was still immersed in swing changes. Woods made the cut, but never contended, finishing T44. Woods skipped the Farmers last year to play in Abu Dhabi.
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Now, though, coming off a season in which he won three times, he could realistically get off to the best start to a season since he beat Ryuji Imada at the '08 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. Crazy stat of the day: Woods has won five of his last six starts at Torrey. He's now in a 16-way tie for 20th in his bid for an eighth professional win here.
Snedeker is coming off a season in which he won twice, in the process capturing the FedEx Cup's $10 million first-prize bonus. The defending champ at Torrey Pines, he couldn't be much more comfortable with his game.
"The golf course is in great shape, and to play the way I played today was nice," said Snedeker, who didn't make a bogey. "I drove the ball really well, didn't make too many mistakes, and, when I did, my putter saved me which was nice. It was a great day, but I realize we've got three more of them to go, and I've still got the hard course to go, so not too much excitement yet."
Several players went low in the perfect conditions, including a group of eight players at six under, among them Charles Howell III, runner-up to Brian Gay at the Humana Challenge last week, and resurgent 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir.
Fed up with the length of the South Course, and the occasional wet weather in Southern California, Choi skipped the Farmers last year, but a friend insisted that to skip it for a second year in a row would only further disappoint his fans. Buoyed by his off-season work on the short game — and an epiphany on the range 40 minutes before his tee time — Choi birdied five of his last six holes to tie Snedeker.
"I found something on the range," Choi said. "It was with every club, but my irons had been rolling out six or seven yards, and I started getting more spin."
A day after apologizing for his tax comments, Phil Mickelson, playing with Snedeker, stumbled to an even-par 72 on the easier North.
"I didn't play the best," said Mickelson, a three-time winner here. "I hit it poorly. I putted poorly. But I love being here at Torrey Pines. The course is in great shape, the greens are as firm as I've seen them. I'll see if I can get it going tomorrow."