SAN DIEGO – Well, if nothing else, the stage is clear.
Tiger Woods, world’s best player, hightailed it home after matching his second-worst score as a pro.
Phil Mickelson, hometown hero, is probably face down in a physiotherapy trailer somewhere.
So what remains here at Torrey Pines is a largely unproven leaderboard, with two very notable exceptions: the uber-talented Gary Woodland, who after two injury-plagued seasons seems poised to cash in on his considerable potential; and American wunderkind Jordan Spieth, vying to become the youngest two-time PGA Tour winner in more than 80 years.
Hey, what the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open lacks in star power, it makes up for in game-changing potential.
So now that the stage is clear, now that the event’s two headliners are no longer on the marquee, who will step forward?
If Saturday was any indication, the big winner might be Torrey Pines’ South Course, which more closely resembles a U.S. Open venue than a regular Tour stop.
The municipal course checks in just shy of 7,700 yards.
The rough is long, patchy and thick, and it’s more brutal the closer you get to the fairway.
The greens are firm and fast, baking out quickly under a warm sun.
Bogey-free rounds here are a rarity; in Round 3, in fact, there were none.
So it would seem that Woodland, 29 and a two-time winner, has an advantage – if only because, for now, he’s perched perilously atop the leaderboard.
“I played beautifully today,” said Woodland, who squandered a three-shot advantage late by three-putting each of the last two greens. He settled for a 70 and 8-under 208 total, one clear of Marc Leishman (72) and Spieth (75).
In control off the tee, Woodland says he’s playing more aggressively than he has in the past, which is a tantalizing proposition from a player who last year ranked fourth in driving distance (nearly 304 yards per pop).
Said Pat Perez, who played with Woodland on Saturday: “With his length and short game, he’s going to be hard to beat tomorrow just because the spots he hits it in.”
So far this week Woodland has put himself in the fairway and leads the field in greens in regulation, hitting no fewer than 13 greens per day. “If I drive the ball in play,” he said, “I’m playing a little different golf course than most guys are playing.”
Spieth is no short-knocker himself, but his big stick put him in a few big predicaments Saturday at Torrey Pines.
Staked to his first outright lead on Tour through 36 holes, the 20-year-old denied being nervous on the first tee despite his relative inexperience in that position. Of course, his play told a different story: He snap-hooked his first tee ball miles left, then didn’t even hit the hole with his 2 1/2-foot par putt.
Yes, Spieth made more bogeys on Day 3 than he did during the first two rounds combined. But on a day for positioning, he did not shoot himself out of the tournament, which was no small feat considering where some of his shots came to rest. He hit just five fairways in all, but the good news, Spieth said, was that the issue was easily corrected.
“My clubface is a little shut at the top and a little upright,” he explained. “I know what my problem is; I just need to get to the range to fix it.”
Some players have criticized a largely unimaginative setup this week that has yielded few birdies and even fewer roars. But with 12 players within three shots of the lead, Sunday figures to be anything but dull.
If not Woodland or Spieth, then maybe Sunday will be Marc Leishman’s day. The International Presidents Cup member prefers big, tough venues, which helps explain why he posted a pair of top 15s in the majors last year.
Or perhaps it’ll come down to Nicolas Colsaerts, nicknamed the “Belgian Bomber” for his titanium-denting length, who could reassert his dominance on the par 5s – he bogeyed three of the four on Saturday – and post a low number.
Or maybe the prize will go to Pat Perez, the San Diego native who has long considered this week as his fifth major. After all, he used to clean carts and drive the range picker here at Torrey Pines as a boy, and his father, Tony, is set to announce him on the first tee again Sunday.
Given his experience here, Perez was asked if there was any way to predict the final-round outcome. He wouldn’t budge.
“If I could do that,” he said, “I wouldn’t have to play golf. I’d go play the lottery.”
Good point, but the one thing we know for sure: The winner won’t be Tiger or Phil.