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Stacked field arrives at Farmers Insurance Open with big goals in mind

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Given that there is already an array of incentives – for instance, a US$7.5 million purse, a potential winning prize of US$1.35 million, and a swanky and eclectic oceanfront locale in Southern California – one wouldn’t think that talented professional golfers would find anything else to prompt them to enter the Farmers Insurance Open this week.

Yet that is the case with the annual tournament in San Diego, set for January 28 through 31. This PGA TOUR stop—where Marc Leishman of Australia arrives as defending champion — never struggles to attract a stellar field, but this year the star power is even more excessive and the stage, Torrey Pines’ South Course, is a big reason why.

 

The beefy, 7,765-yard golf course that sits high atop majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean maintains such a persona that it is worthy of two top-billings in 2021. First, as site of the Farmers for a 54th consecutive year, then later this summer as host to the U.S. Open.

 

“One of my favorite venues on the PGA TOUR and one of my favorite golf courses in the world,” said Englishman Justin Rose, winner of the 2019 Farmers Insurance Open.

 

While he wasn’t speaking on behalf of anyone, he very well could have been. The South Course has that much cache and commands that much respect with all corners of the golf world – players, fans, and administrators such as those who run the United States Golf Association and have chosen Torrey Pines to host its flagship event for the second time in 14 years.

 

Adam Scott, No. 23 in the latest Official World Golf Ranking, emphasized that building early-season form was the primary reason for entering the Farmers for just the second time in his career, but he conceded that it helps to know he can get a feel for the upcoming U.S. Open.

 

It would be a safe bet to suggest other marquee names share that sentiment, because early commitments for the Farmers arrived from No. 2 Jon Rahm, the 2017 champion; No. 6 Xander Schauffele; No. 7 Rory McIlroy; and No. 12 Brooks Koepka.

 

For Asian hopes, all eyes will be on Si Woo Kim, who ended a four-year title drought on Sunday to claim a third PGA TOUR victory at The American Express after making birdies in two of the last three holes to edge Patrick Cantlay by a single stroke.

 

While the Farmers uses both the South Course and North Course to play the first two rounds, it’s the former that comes to mind when you talk Torrey Pines and that opens a floodgate of nostalgia. Most immediately, special memories of the previous U.S. Open visit to Torrey Pines – in 2008 when Tiger Woods might have cemented his legacy.

 

Hobbling on a sore leg and playing in just his sixth tournament of that season, the then-32-year-old Woods birdied the 72nd hole to get into an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate, then birdied it again the next day to force a tie, at 71. Needing a sudden-death hole, Woods beat Mediate at the par-4 seventh to win his third U.S. Open and 14th major championship.

 

The compelling footnote to the saga was Woods a few days later having surgery on his left knee and being sidelined the rest of the season.

 

A less heralded footnote is that Woods had also won the Farmers Insurance Open (then called the Buick Invitational) four-and-a-half months earlier. A nice little double dip into the winner’s circle at Torrey Pines in the same calendar year, but it’s not like Woods had never done something like that before.

 

Famously in 2000, Woods stormed to an improbable victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, then in June he lapped the field in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

 

This is where we introduce the fact that Woods announced on January 19 that he was out for the Farmers Insurance Open, as well as the upcoming Genesis Invitational. Woods, who last competed competitively at the November Masters, is exempt into the U.S. Open later this summer. That’s not to suggest he’s a good bet to do what he did in 2008 – not at 45, and not with a game that is likely to be rusty. Yes, he’s won eight times at Torrey Pines (seven Farmers and that U.S. Open), but the last victory came in 2013 and he’s been top 10 just once in six trips since.

 

Yet, with a parade of names such as McIlroy and Rahm, Koepka and Schauffele, it’s worth rekindling memories of Woods in 2008 and 2000 with this reminder: Great players do special things like this. Take Jack Nicklaus, for example. In 1972 he won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, then in June at Pebble he captured the third of his four U.S. Opens.

 

And Ben Hogan prevailed at the Los Angeles Open at Riviera in 1948, a few months before he won the U.S. Open there. No wonder they called it “Hogan’s Alley.” It was after that U.S. Open win that Charles Curtis wrote this in the Los Angeles Times: “They’ll make him mayor of Pacific Palisades any day now and hand him the keys to the clubhouse.”

 

Hogan, however, refused to buy into the notion that he was unbeatable at “the Riv,” even if he had won the Los Angeles Open there in 1947, too. “I guess my ability to read the greens has been my best asset Riviera,” he begrudgingly said after the second of his two wins there in 1948. “But that stuff about golfers being a cinch on any particular golf course is nonsense.”

 

Of course, Hogan himself did much to refute his own logic, and Nicklaus in 1972 (at Pebble) and Woods in both 2000 (Pebble) and 2008 (Torrey) proved that they surely had some serious swagger at venues they probably felt as if they owned.

 

That sense of ownership might not exist in 2021, not with the depth of fields and the rise of so much young talent, but there remains a simple reason why a scouting trip is worthwhile.

 

“You can never learn too much,” Mark O’Meara once said. “The more you play a golf course, I think certainly the better it is.”

 

McIlroy might embrace that philosophy. He’ll be playing Torrey for just the third time, hoping that his recent success (T-3 last year, T-5 in 2019) is a good omen. Scott’s only other appearance in the Farmers resulted in a runner-up to Rose in 2019. Koepka, a two-time U.S. Open champion, fell out of favor with Torrey after two blah performances (T-41 in 2015, missed cut in 2017), but he’s back again.

 

The Farmers Insurance Open is rich and flavorful enough to not take a back seat to the 2021 U.S. Open. But it’s not like players won’t know there’s another passenger on this trip.

Published : January 25, 2021