SAN DIEGO – With apologies to those with a Left Coast bias, Sunday’s final frame at the Farmers Insurance Open was all the proof one needs that the cosmic tumblers are not falling as they once did.
Consider that J.B. Holmes parred his final two par 5s on Sunday at Torrey Pines, which is akin to Albert Pujols bunting in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, Chris Paul III dishing at the buzzer, the Seattle Seahawks letting Marshawn Lynch play spectator with the ball at the 1-yard line.
Well, you get the point.
In a sign of just how off script golf at the highest level has become, the week in southern California began with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson failing to advance to the weekend in consecutive weeks for the first time ... ever, the former knocking off after just 11 holes with a deactivated back and the latter with a deactivated putter that led to his highest start at his hometown event in a dozen years.
Strange days, indeed.
But the 2015 Farmers Insurance Open wasn’t about proper release patterns or glute activation or an AWOL putting stroke. This was about playing without pain and with a purpose.
It might be the most bizarre take from four days along the Pacific Ocean that scribes spent more time asking about the health of Jason Day’s caddie/swing coach Col Swatton (rough diagnosis, an old back) than they did Day’s litany of ailments.
Since arriving on Tour in 2008, Day’s potential was matched only by his penchant for landing on the disabled list. There have been back ailments (2014), ankle injuries (2013), right wrist problems (2007) and most recently a balky left thumb (2014), which slowed him for much of last season and prompted him to skip a return home to Australia late last year.
Make no mistake, Day’s dramatically improved health and his inspired play at Torrey Pines are not mutually exclusive, and yet another sign that 2015 is shaping up to shatter the status quo.
Asked if it felt different starting the season so far removed from the trainer’s table, Swatton’s take was telling, “100 percent, 100 percent. We knew he could do what he wants to do if he’s healthy.”
Not that his overtime victory on Sunday was without any metaphorical pain.
When the day began with a blanket of fog inching its way up the cliffs on Black’s Beach there were 10 players within two strokes of the lead. By lunch that number had dwindled to half that, with Holmes in control at 10 under par with two par 5s waiting.
But at the 13th hole Holmes, who is still among the bomber circuit’s longest (29th this season in driving distance), made a mess of the par-5 13th hole and laid up at the closing hole on his way to another par and a four-way playoff.
“If it would have been 5 yards shorter or 3 or 4 yards longer, it was really on a downslope to the hole and it was just a lie that my tendency is to hit it a little bit further and hit a draw, and long and left is dead,” Holmes said of his decision to lay up on the 72nd hole.
Instead, Holmes finished tied with Day, Harris English and Scott Stallings at 9 under par and laid up, again, after finding a fairway bunker in the playoff at the 18th hole.
The crowded field was whittled to two when English and Stallings, looking to become the first back-to-back winner at Torrey Pines since Woods in 2008, made par; and when Holmes airmailed the green at No. 16 in the second extra frame Day only needed to two-putt from 14 feet for his third Tour victory and his second in less than a year.
“To be able to win the way I did was very statisfying,” said Day, who closed with a 70 that featured just a single bogey over his final 30 holes on a South Course that was every bit as stingy as anything the frat brothers will play until May.
Explain again why the USGA dragged its feet so long to bring the U.S. Open back to this seaside municipal gem?
“The rough was thicker than it was in 2008 [for the U.S. Open] because for the Open the rough was graduated. Here it was thick up to the edge of the fairway,” said Charles Howell III, who finished tied for fifth one stroke out of the playoff. “The greens were firm, the fairways were narrow, it was every bit as hard as it was then.”
You didn’t have to tell Woods or Mickelson how hard things were at Torrey Pines.
A 2 1/2-hour fog delay to start the week on Thursday appeared to derail Woods, who was 2 over par and moving gingerly when he withdrew after only 11 holes.
“It's frustrating that it started shutting down like that. I was ready to go,” said Woods, who has withdrawn from three of his last eight official PGA Tour events. “I had a good warm-up session the first time around. Then we stood out here and I got cold, and everything started deactivating again. It's frustrating that I just can't stay activated.”
Mickelson made it 36 holes, but was no less dejected by what transpired on Torrey Pines’ greens.
“I’m down. I’m frustrated, because I see other parts of my game do very well, but putting as bad as I have, it starts to creep into some of the other areas too,” said Mickelson, who led the field for Rounds 1 and 2 with five three-putts.
Day had no such issues at Torrey Pines, nor did he have any health concerns, which may be as empowering, and strange, as the trophy he hoisted in just his third start of the season.
Even Day, who will move to fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking on Monday, could appreciate the juxtaposition his pain-free start to the season has created.
“I’ve come close so many times to having great years and especially going off last year and having the ups and downs, to be able to be healthy and getting off to a great start is special,” Day said.
One could almost call it strange.