Looking for a new start after a disastrous year on and off the golf course, Woods felt little stress Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open with a 3-under 69 on the North Course that left him five shots behind South Korean rookie Sunghoon Kang.
If the setting was familiar for Woods, so was his middle-of-the-pack position. In four of his six wins at this tournaments, he has been at least five shots behind after the opening round.
“I’m happy with the way I played, absolutely,” Woods said. “I could have been a lot better if I took care of the par 5s a little bit more, but obviously, I didn’t do that.”
Kang, a 24-year-old rookie, finished with back-to-back birdies on the North Course for an 8-under 64, giving him a one-shot lead over fellow rookie Chris Kirk, Alex Prugh and Rickie Fowler.
Phil Mickelson shot 32 on the back nine for a 5-under 67 to match the best score on the tougher South Course, which hosted the 2008 U.S. Open that Woods won in a playoff. Also at 67 on the South was John Daly, whose last win came in 2004 at this tournament. He is the last player to win at Torrey Pines when Woods was in the field.
“This place means a lot to me,” Daly said. “The top golfers play here every year. That says something.”
Woods no longer is No. 1 – he has slipped to No. 3 in the world ranking and can’t improve on that this week – but he has not played the public course he has practically owned since that U.S. Open in 2008. He missed the next year because of knee surgery, and last year while in a Mississippi addiction clinic after being caught in extramarital affairs.
“Welcome back to Torrey,” was a popular phrase from the gallery throughout his round, in which Woods played solidly except on the greens. He made only two putts longer than 3 feet – a 10-foot par save on No. 8, and a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 sixth that bounced along until catching the right corner of the cup.
“I didn’t leave myself any putts,” Woods said. “I kept leaving myself above the hole. And I didn’t take advantage of the par 5s.”
The North Course is not the pushover it has been in past years because of some new length, and not just in distance. Along with being some 90 yards longer, the rough was allowed to grow and is thicker than the grass found on the South Course.
“I didn’t know the North was as long as the South,” Ben Curtis said after a 70. He knows better, but it felt that way if tee shots did not stay in the narrow, canted fairways.
Woods was in shorter grass on half of his 14 tee shots, although four of those misses came on the par 5s. He couldn’t get to the green in two, and didn’t make the birdie putts.
Even so, he looked more like the Woods who ended last year with a playoff loss at the Chevron World Challenge, not the guy who played so poorly for so much of the year that he didn’t win on the PGA Tour for the first time in his career.
It felt like a typical season-opener for Woods, including his position on the leaderboard. In his last four trips to this PGA Tour event, he has trailed by seven, six, five and two shots after the opening round and went on to win them all.
Even so, scoring on the North was lower, and Woods will need to pick up the pace on the South Course. He is playing the first two days with Anthony Kim and Rocco Mediate, whom Woods defeated in that epic U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines.
Mediate was chattering away, as usual, but there wasn’t much conversation about that 19-hole playoff from 2008.
“We didn’t play that golf course,” Woods said.
Kim was among those at 68, a tribute to his great scrambling. He chipped in from 40 feet for par, holed a 30-foot par putt from the fringe and made two other par saves outside 10 feet.
The top of the leaderboard was filled with youth, starting with Kang, who earned his card through Q-School. Fowler was voted the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010 on a ballot that included Prugh. Kirk finished second on the Nationwide Tour last year, when he hurt his wrist and couldn’t play the last two events.
On the South Course, rookies Fabian Gomez of Argentina and Keegan Bradley were among those at 67
Kang had the recipe on the North Course that Woods couldn’t find.
“This course, all the par 5s are reachable, so I really tried to keep to the fairways and it worked really well,” Kang said. “And I really had a good chance on the par 5s. That’s why I played very well today.”
He played them in 4 under, including an eagle on No. 14 when he chipped in from 25 feet.
Daly has special memories of Torrey from his playoff win in 2004, but he wasn’t in such a great mood a year ago. He missed the cut after rounds of 79-71, and told a Golf Channel television crew that was taping a documentary that he was done. Some media outlets construed that to mean he was retiring, although Daly had made similar comments right after a bad performance.
“You get frustrated,” Daly said.
That wasn’t the case Thursday, a spectacular day of sunshine along the Pacific coast.