Horses for Courses


Farmers Insurance OpenSAN DIEGO – Blame it on TMZ. Or divisive health care debates or an abnormally cold winter.

Whatever the impetus, golf has gotten mean.

Consider the last news cycle. Within the last 24 hours Phil Mickelson was forced to defend his honor, John Daly retired, then Tweeted, then unretired; and, finally, a thuggish muni took a toll on the Tour’s best and brightest.

Say this about the Tour’s SoCal staple, it stays on script.

Each year like taxes the North Course lulls Tour types into thinking they’ve got a good handle on things only to get TKO’d on the weekend when the proceedings move exclusively to the South Course.

The South’s 7,568 yards doesn’t take the tabloid’s temperature or reward style points which goes a long way to explaining why each year’s leaderboards have a “50 First Dates” feel to them.

Much like the famed Del Mar Racetrack just up the San Diego Freeway, some Tour ponies seem better equipped for the South than others.

Consider Saturday’s 54-hole primer. Atop the leaderboard is Ryuji Imada, whose last three cards at Torrey Pines read T-16, second, T-14; followed by Phil Mickelson, a three-time Torrey winner; and Ernie Els, whose handful of SoCal starts include a tie for sixth in 2005 and a 14th at the ’08 U.S. Open.

“It’s a great course to play because you don’t feel like you have to shoot a lot under par to do well,” said Charles Howell III, who is tied for 17th and counts two runners-up on his Torrey Pines resume. “It would be interesting to see what the scores would be if the North wasn’t in the rotation.”

They tried that experiment once. It was called the U.S. Open and Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate made history and plenty of histrionics with 1 under par totals.

Opinions vary on why certain players excel on the South. Kamikaze putters seem to be the cure for Torrey’s bumpy Poa greens, while long and straight, which plays well most weeks, is also crucial, particularly on what is essentially the circuit’s longest venue at sea level.

“Driving the ball in the fairway at Torrey is important,” said Mike Taylor, the swing coach for Lucas Glover who is alone in fourth, three shots back. “I also think players who putt with more aggressive speed on those greens tend to putt better. Lucas does both very well.”

Glover is 29th and 32nd in driving distance and driving accuracy, respectively. It’s a combination that lifted him to last year’s U.S. Open victory and top-4 finishes at Torrey Pines last year and in 2006.

Simply put, it’s not the Bob Hope. Twenty under is not an option at Torrey Pines, which is why the U.S. Golf Association has made Torrey the Open’s West Coast home and why linebackers like Glover, Els and Mickelson enjoy its smash-mouth ways.

“It’s a U.S. Open course, long, hard, demanding,” said Glover, who played his best golf last year on the circuit’s hardest pitches (Torrey Pines, Bethpage, Quail Hollow). “It’s so hard it helps with my patience and I need that.”

Mickelson’s resume, to say nothing of his play this week, certainly qualify him as a founding member of the Torrey Pines “skull and crossbones” society, but Lefty’s take on the beloved muni is a bit sweet and sour.

The San Diego native has finished in the top 25 in more than half his starts at Torrey Pines (11), but he has not broken the victory seal since 2001, the same year Rees Jones did his pre-U.S. Open nip/tuck on the layout.

“The changes that were made to the golf course affected the way I've played here,” said Mickelson, whose best finish since ’01 is a tie for fourth in 2003 and ’04 and he finished 18th at the ’08 Open during the great “no driver” experiment. “The reads of the greens are totally different; they don't break towards the ocean, they break away from the bunkers.”

By comparison, Els has played Torrey Pines as a professional just twice, the 2005 Buick Invitational (T-6) and U.S. Open (T-14). The result, he concedes, of an international schedule and appearance fees. “The cash was good,” he said.

But it is a style of play, not reps, that matters at Torrey Pines.

“It's a good golf course for longer hitters,” Els said. “You can get onto some of the par 5s. But it's a good ballstriking golf course. You’ve got to hit the ball well all over. You can't really fake it around here.”

Seems about right that the “Big Easy” would be in the hunt on a course that is anything but.