For many, the annual stop at the Farmers Insurance Open is the unofficial start to the golf season and, with Tiger Woods making his debut, the eyes of the golf world will be on Torrey Pines. Here's this week's Front 9.
No. 1 - Tiger's track record at Torrey -- Whenever he plays in a tournament, Tiger Woods is the top story, regardless of what else is going on in the golf world. This week, Woods makes his American debut at Torrey Pines, where he's won seven tournaments. Woods said this week that the course is playing differently from how he's used to, but grouped the track with Augusta and Firestone as his favorite venues, where he feels most comfortable.
There's a plenty of import that's been assigned to Woods' performance this week -- folks arguing that his debut, on a course that he's owned, will set the tone for a 2013 season. Every time Woods tees it up, his play will be scrutinized and the state of his swing and mental makeup will be measured. But since 2008 injury and the intervening drama, this is probably the first season Woods is starting in relatively good health and with relative comfort in his redesigned Sean Foley swing. He's said this week that, at this point, he's comfortable enough with the swing change that he's transitioned to working more on his chipping and putting.
All these add up to Woods being yet again a heavy favorite to win. But if he doesn't, or even if he misses the cut like he did last week, it's no measurement or sign for the rest of the season, and not a cause for concern about how he'll do at Augusta in April. That's a trend that will need to develop over the next two months, and the scrutiny and re-measuring will be there every step of the way.
No. 2 - Phil's tax trouble -- Mickelson, the second-most popular American golfer, caused a stir this week when he waded into political waters. Mickelson's comments on the high tax rates in his home state of California were dissected intensely throughout the (generally conservative) golf media as well as on cable news, which is always a productive forum for discussion. Phil, who kept the assembled press waiting on Wednesday, apologized again for speaking about non-sports matters.
The tax issue is an unnecessary distraction but it will likely be forgotten, or have died down, by the end of the week. Of greater concern is Mickelson's game. He had a lackluster performance last week in Palm Springs and will attempt to get it together in his back yard in La Jolla. After blowing away Woods at last year's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the fireworks, both good and bad, at Augusta, Mickelson had a quiet season on Tour. As noted above with Woods, a January win doesn't mean much for the majors, but showing well in San Diego would at least end a controversial week on a good note.
No. 3 - California start -- As the eastern United States freezes, the PGA Tour hits the high point of its annual California swing. Two of the next three tournaments will be played along the Pacific Ocean at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, providing two of the most scenic weeks on Tour.
Both are also major-caliber layouts, even if their teeth are dulled down a bit for regular Tour stops. Players this week will also get a crack at the North Course at Torrey Pines, with each group playing there on either Thursday or Friday before the weekend finish on the South Course. In order to be in contention, it's almost a prerequisite that a player go low during his one day on the North Course. Past winners typically fire in the mid-to-low 60s at the North Course, setting themselves up for the weekend. But as we saw last year with Kyle Stanley, the South Course, particularly at No. 18, can quickly ruin a couple days' work.
As for the viewers in the cold, they'll just admire the hangliders over the La Jolla cliffs while the golfers grind it out.
No. 4 - Repeat champion? -- The field at this week's Farmers Insurance Open is fairly loaded, both with past champions and the young talents on Tour. The odds, however, heavily favor a repeat champion -- whether it's Tiger, Phil, Bubba Watson, or Brandt Snedeker.
Bubba and Snedeker, the last two winners here, will play together the first two days. Nick Watney and Tiger, both past winners, will also play together for the first two rounds. On a course where comfort often plays a role, it's likely that the top of the leaderboard is populated with those names come Sunday. Snedeker, in particular, has looked sharp again in two starts this season. His win here last season propelled him to a career year, which included a $10 million pot at the end of it. While Woods and Phil will get all the attention, it's more likely that the winner comes out of that Bubba-Snedeker pairing.
No. 5 - Finchem on anchoring - While Phil kept the media waiting, PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem jumped in front of him and took the podium Wednesday in La Jolla. Finchem fielded questions about the players' meeting held on Tuesday night, and the topic was largely about the implementation of the USGA's ban on the anchored putting stroke.
Finchem reiterated that the Tour doesn't have to go along with the proposed ban, but said that's only technically a possibility at this point. It appeared that he'd like the Tour to align itself with the decision made by the USGA and R&A. But it does sound like Finchem would prefer to depart from the USGA's proposed timetable for implementing the ban, which is set to take effect in 2016:
"My view would be to move it quicker, if it's going to happen because it continues to be a distraction if you don't. You have players on television, in front of galleries, playing with a method that has been outlawed, even though the enforcement date is later. That's in and of itself the makings of a distraction."
No. 6 - Spieth's debut -- There's a constant search for the next big star in golf, and Jordan Spieth may be the safest bet on this side of the Atlantic. As a teenager and an amateur, Spieth has already demonstrated his ability to hang with the professionals and be in the mix on the weekend. He continued that success at Texas where he was an All-American.
Patrick Cantlay has been the one many have looked to over the past two summers as the next big American star. But with a new Under Armour sponsorship deal in tow, Spieth now enters the fray this week in his first professional start. While the former champs are likely to litter to top of the leaderboard, expect a strong showing from Spieth, who should emerge as the best in class of the young Americans.
No. 7 - Rory & Nike -- Much was made of Rory's struggles last week in Abu Dhabi, with plenty pointing the finger at his new Nike equipment. McIlroy didn't exactly quell that discussion when he switched back to his Scotty Cameron putter after just one day using the Nike Method.
Nike golf exec Cindy Davis, who was a part of the laser light show introducing Rory, joined Golf Channel's Morning Drive this week and addressed the unremarkable start:
"It's a process and we understand it's the early days. He's fully confident. It's an issue of comfort, and I think in time it will all play out really well."
Nike and their players love that word "process." But it will take some time, and more Sturm und Drang in the press, before Rory is totally comfortable. Golf writer Steve Elling draws an interesting parallel on the matter:
Thorbjorn Olesen used 14 Nike clubs to finish one putt short of playoff today. Second week using new sticks. So let's not overreact on Rory.— Steve Elling (@EllingYelling) January 20, 2013
No. 8 - Justin Rose -- The Englishman, who was one of the stars of the Sunday Ryder Cup comeback, is off to a good 2013 start. Rose was the third headliner last week in Abu Dhabi, behind Rory and Tiger, and he had the best showing of the group. He finished one shot back of winner Jamie Donaldson, missing a putt on the final hole to force a playoff. He is still in the Middle East, where's playing at the Qatar Masters. But, much like Woods last week, he's already encountered some rules drama in the first round.
Rose was consistently in contention on both the PGA and European Tours last season, and his career has been rejuvenated here in his early 30s. He'll be a trendy pick to win his first major this season, and he's already carrying over the success from end of last year.
No. 9 - Golf geekery -- The annual PGA Show is taking place in Florida this week and, as is typically the case with conventions, it's a collection of hobbyist geeks. If you're into golf, it's a dazzling floor of new gadgets, apparel and equipment. If you're a casual fan, it's likely mind-numbing minutiae. There will be plenty of pictures flowing out from the show on Twitter, and you can follow @SI_Golf as well as our own @ChicagoDuffer and @GolfExaminer for more from Orlando.