SAN DIEGO – Saturday’s headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune announced “Stars Are Out,” a nod to the front-runners at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open.
Maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe it was the acme of hometown bias, but for those beyond the 858 area code the leaderboard was something, well … less than star-studded.
Of the top 12 players heading into Sunday’s final turn along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the average Official World Golf Ranking is 223rd and the leading dozen have a combined 30 PGA Tour victories. Eighth-ranked Jason Day and No. 13 Jimmy Walker highlight a group that has won a major (Lucas Glover, 2009 U.S. Open).
So forgive some cynical observers if the Torrey Pines leaderboard doesn’t exactly move the proverbial needle, yet what remains is every bit the new normal.
No other way to explain it. If parity is bad, the Tour isn’t going to be right anytime soon.
Consider that perennial headliners Tiger Woods (WD) and Phil Mickelson (MC) failed to advance to the weekend in consecutive starts for the first time ever; and that Friday’s cut was particularly tough on the marquee with the high-profile likes of Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth also missing the back half of the four-day matinee.
It’s not a bad thing, nor should it be overly concerning, just the way of the new world.
Maybe Woods’ ailing back is nothing more than a bump in the rehabilitation road – the former world No. 1 told Golf Channel’s Notah Begay that it wasn’t an injury that sent him packing after 11 holes, just tightness. Maybe Mickelson rediscovers a putting stroke that has abandoned him and Johnson returns from his six-month, self-imposed hiatus a new man and fulfills all that major potential.
But while those kinds of wishful scenarios may work from 30,000 feet, the reality down in the weeds that ringed Torrey Pines’ South Course suggests a different reality.
Through 54 holes, your front-runners are J.B. Holmes and Harris English, the former an inspiring story of perseverance who is something of a medical miracle and the latter a five-tool potential world-beater who endured a sophomore slump last season and appears to be better for it.
Walker, already a winner this year who impressed many with his play at last year’s Ryder Cup, is tied with Glover, Spencer Levin, Chad Campbell and Nick Watney, a group that has weathered varying degrees of pedestrian play the last few years.
But if it felt as if the air had been vacuumed from the seaside municipal gem on Thursday and Friday with the litany of top-card exits, it should be pointed out that officials didn’t cancel tournament.
Fans still arrived in droves on Saturday, players still cautiously picked their way around a demanding golf course and, as is normally the case at Torrey Pines, Sunday’s finish will most likely be compelling if not classic.
Keep calm and carry on.
It’s an unspoken point of contention on the Tour that while Woods has been the primary driving force in the game for more than a decade, on any given week there are 155 other stories that have the potential to be just as compelling.
“As a player do I feel like the media talks about it a little too much? Yeah,” Holmes allowed. “If he's not playing good, I mean everybody goes through lulls and everybody doesn't play good all the time, we just don't have a camera around all the time.
“So when a guy is down and not playing too good and for everybody to really to just critique everything, it kind of gets in the way, because there's some people that are playing well. I would like to see the TV and the media maybe pay a little more attention to people that are playing well.”
Holmes’ take is neither an indictment of Woods nor his impact on the game, just a new reality that has emerged over the last few years.
Never was that more obvious than on Thursday when Woods made another surreal exit that has become far too familiar in recent years.
“Me and Rickie [Fowler] we got on No. 3 tee and we sort of joked, we saw [Golf Channel reporter Curt Byrum] leave and all the cameras and then we saw all these media people scamper away towards him and we said, ‘How many people will stay with us?’” asked Billy Horschel, who was paired with Woods during Round 1.
The answer to Billy Ho’s question was about 50 who finished the round with the twosome.
“We became chopped liver. We realized where we stand in this game of golf and we had a good joke about it,” Horschel said.
The remaining contenders at Torrey Pines are far from “chopped liver.”
From Holmes, who rebounded from brain surgery in 2011 to win the 2014 Wells Fargo Championship, to Glover, who is playing like he did when he won the ’09 Open – which seems about right considering a South Course that is feeling more like a national championship venue than a spring training tune-up – there are enough compelling storylines to fill a dozen notebooks.
Historically, professional golf was never better than when Woods and Mickelson were playing their best. Maybe this is an end to an era, although considering each star’s competitive drive, that seems unlikely. But even if the game’s alpha males do emerge from their professional abyss the reality is the twilight will come, sooner or later.
When that day comes, players like English, Walker and Glover will play on, and it will be up to the rest of us to read and write their stories.