Torrey Stories: Bubba shines, Phil shows some life and Tiger continues to struggle

Torrey Stories: Bubba shines, Phil shows some life and Tiger continues to struggle

WINNING FORMULA: Watson led the field in driving distance and hit the most greens in regulation.
Robert Beck/SI

Last week’s PGA Tour stop outside San Diego began with 156 players. Almost half missed the cut, earning not a penny for their efforts. The other 78 players got run over on the weekend by Bubba Watson, who came through with a big-time performance for the second victory of what is suddenly looking like a solid career. The Tour’s calculus is so cruel—by one standard there were 155 failures last week—that the players have to measure success in different ways. Jhonattan Vegas, the charismatic rookie from Venezuela, rinsed a five-iron on the 72nd hole to blow a chance at victory, but he still might’ve been the biggest winner at Torrey Pines, backing up his surprise breakthrough the previous week at the Hope and along the way cementing his standing as golf’s most charming newcomer. Dustin Johnson seemingly didn’t make a putt all week but still tied for third, his second top 10 in as many starts this year as he seeks to elevate himself into a week-in-and-week-out force. Anthony Kim sputtered on the weekend, but his tie for sixth is easily his best performance since thumb surgery last May, hopefully foreshadowing big things for one of golf’s most talented teases.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson would seem to be way past the point of moral victories—they have combined for 318 career top 10s—but they came to Torrey with a modest goal: generate some momentum for what is a make-or-break season for both of them. Only Mickelson succeeded, and even that has to be qualified. He arrived at the 72nd hole, a short par-5, thinking eagle but blew his drive way left into the weeds, thwarting his chance at victory. (Although, in a brassy bit of showmanship, he had his caddie, Jim Mackay, tend the flagstick as Mickelson, 72 yards away, tried to jar a wedge shot to force sudden death. The ball landed a foot left of the hole and settled four feet behind it.) Still, Mickelson was palpably pleased with his runner-up finish, his first strong showing since last June, when he began suffering from psoriatic arthritis. Phil the Thrill made a lone bogey in each of the second and third rounds and had extended stretches of brilliance with his iron game. (He tied for second in greens in regulation.) “I’m excited because I can tell that my game’s coming around,” he said on Sunday evening. “I can tell that I’m starting to hit more shots and that I’m starting to see them a little bit easier. My putt­ing feels great. My short game has been sharp, so I’m excited about the prospects for the rest of this year.”

He was also buoyed by contending in his hometown event for the first time in seven years and by the effervescent presence of his wife, Amy, in his gallery, as she was able to walk four rounds for the first time since the 2009 Masters, shortly before she learned she had breast cancer. Amy’s recovery has understandably been the focus of the Mickelson family, but Phil’s arthritis is a potentially serious condition that requires injections every Monday. “He’s much stronger than he was last summer,” says Amy. “He’s back in the gym and working hard. The medicine is working well, and he’s learning to manage his condition better. And because of all that, a lot of the stress has disappeared.”

On the golf course too. One of the game’s most natural players has been obsessing about his swing with instructor Butch Harmon since the spring of 2007. Mickelson, 40, says he is now past the point of making mechanical changes and is focused on shaping shots and playing by feel. The ease and clarity with which he competed at Torrey was in stark contrast to the plight of Woods, who began the third swing overhaul of his career last summer. Tiger’s shaky performances in 2010 were easy to dismiss, given that he was playing through the spectacular tabloid crack-up of his marriage. But he spent the last seven weeks grinding on the range under the watchful eye of his new guru, Sean Foley, and his season debut at Torrey was a chance to reassert his dominion in his first return to the course since his mythmaking U.S. Open victory in 2008. Instead Woods looked utterly lost for the better part of four days, missing shots both ways, chunking chips, leaving shots in greenside bunkers, whiffing putts, twitching, grimacing and forever rehearsing and pantomiming the desired positions of his swing. Once the game’s most consistent and dominant performer, he has become a golfing schizophrenic, his form coming and going with alarming speed—not day to day, but hole to hole, even swing to swing.

During the second round Woods birdied four holes in a row on the front nine to charge up the leader board. He then bogeyed 11, 14 and 15. Then he birdied 16 and 18. On Saturday four bogeys offset a pair of birdies. That added up to a 74, only the second time in his last 46 rounds at Torrey that he had been over par. Playing alongside, Vegas beat him by five shots. On Sunday, Woods was even worse, scuffling to a 75 that sent him skidding to 44th place. (After not making a bogey in his first 28 holes, he had a dozen over his last 44.) Once again Woods was outclassed by a playing partner: Brendan Steele, who shot a smooth 70. Other players used to quake in their saddle shoes at the sight of the indomitable Woods. Now, baby-faced rookies are taking pity on him. Steele was asked if he got any satisfaction in besting arguably the greatest player of all time. “Not really when he’s playing poorly,” Steele said.

The hallmark of Woods’s game has always been effort. Has anyone fought harder to grind out a score? But at Torrey his mopey body language and at times cursory work on and around the greens was that of a player who is beaten down by the game. “I don’t think he gave it everything today,” Steele said in a biting bit of honesty. “Once it started going in the wrong direction, I don’t think it had his full attention.”

Woods, 35, has had fallow periods during previous swing renovations, though it must be noted these came when he was younger and before he shredded his right Achilles tendon and required a third and fourth surgery on his left knee. He spent last week preaching patience and affirmed that he’s “committed to what I’m doing [with Foley] and I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward.” At Torrey, Woods had a steeper shoulder turn and the club was farther from his body on the downswing. “We’re trying to get the club more on plane and the face more square at the top,” says Foley. “From there he can use his body more, his hands less. That’ll lead to more consistency and more power.” According to both student and teacher, Woods has been hitting the ball nicely in practice but doesn’t yet have the belief to bring this game between the ropes. “I don’t care if you’ve won 71 tournaments and 14 majors, you’re still human, you still feel nerves and anxiety under the gun,” says Foley.

Woods may have an unlikely beacon of hope in Watson, 32, who last year won in sudden death at Hartford, lost in a playoff at the PGA Championship and made his Ryder Cup debut. Bubba is the game’s most instinctive player, shaping all manner of shots with his self-taught swing. It’s often not pretty, but it works—he led the field in driving distance (308 yards a pop) and greens in regulation. Watson has a peculiar genius for getting the ball in the hole. On Sunday he made all-world up and downs on the last two holes to pull out a victory that he rightfully described as a “springboard.” His playing partner could only shake his head. “The way Bubba plays the game, it’s different,” said Vegas with a laugh. “But it’s great. Who says there is only one right way to swing or to play?”

Woods is a workaholic whose relentless quest for perfection has defined his transcendent legacy. His current obsession with technique may yet lead to another brilliant act in his career. But golf is about more than mechanical proficiency. Bubba knows this. It looks as if Phil has finally remembered it too.