SAN DIEGO – If 2011 turns out to be the much anticipated old vs. young showdown the PGA Tour is billing it to be, consider the latter the leader in the clubhouse, although Sunday’s showdown at the Farmers Insurance Open felt more like a split decision than it did a TKO.
If the Tour is indeed a clash of generations, consider this bout between young and old a work in progress.
A left-hander won the annual Torrey Pines stop, although those with Left Coast leanings no doubt feel it wasn’t the right southpaw. Not that Bubba Watson, a youngish 32 who counts Rickie Fowler and Twitter among his greatest distractions, was bothered by the partisanship or any other distraction on a rare cold, overcast SoCal day. Which is a victory unto itself considering Watson’s historic lack of attention span.
“I’ve never been to a doctor to be tested (for Attention Deficit Disorder), but we’re guessing I probably do,” said Watson, following a final-round 67 for a one-stroke victory.
Just behind Watson was hometown hero Phil Mickelson, a player who has, on occasion, been accused of over-thinking things, beaten by a player who has never been accused of over-analysis. Which was just one of many profound dichotomies that emerged on a sunless Sunday.
Not only did Watson clip Mickelson in textbook style, he did so with a swashbuckling abandon that Lefty considered detrimental to success on the South Course ever since architect Rees Jones rewired the seaside muni.
Wielding a pink-shafted driver from nearly every tee box, Watson hit just 28 of 56 fairways for the week. Not exactly a recipe for South Course success but the boy from Bagdad, Fla., muscled his way to 59 of 72 greens in regulation, which ranked first among the field.
And if his 29 putts in Round 4 don’t fly off the stat sheet, his final 21 feet (a 9 footer for par at the 17th and a 12 footer for birdie at last) proved to be pivotal for a man who quickly admits, “my mind is messed up.”
Clinging to a one-stroke lead Watson pulled his drive into a bunker left of the 17th fairway and airmailed the green and into a lie so deep that his chip to 12 feet was considered a best case scenario.
A hole later he pounded another drive, missed another green and scrambled for a title-clinching birdie at the iconic last hole. Watson didn’t watch Mickelson play the 72nd hole, his mind and emotions wouldn’t allow it. Had he been so inclined he would have watched the three-time Torrey Pines champion lay up from a bad lie on the last and pace off the 72 yards to the hole.
Had Watson watched the histrionics, he would have seen Lefty’s caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay run forward to tend the flag for his man’s approach, a move that may have appeared presumptive but was actually optimistically precautionary.
“If you know how many times in a year he hits the pin it was a no-brainer,” Mackay said. “These guys hit flags and we’d be feeling pretty disgusted if it hit the flag and went in the soup.”
For the week, Watson won the title and Tiger Woods’ retooled swing seemed to take the weekend off, but it was Mickelson who answered the most questions at Torrey Pines.
A decade removed from his last Torrey Pines title and the better part of a year between himself and that emotional Masters triumph, the question marks loomed large over Lefty heading into his Tour debut.
He didn’t answer them all, but he showed himself, and the golf world, enough.
“I did what I thought would be enough, but it wasn’t,” said Mickelson, who held a one-stroke lead through 54 holes and closed with a 69. “I wanted to start the year off with a win and get some momentum going early, but I gave myself an opportunity.”
Which is more than he’s been able to say about his game, or his health, since last April. The painful arthritis that essentially sidelined him for much of the second half of last year under control and his strength back Mickelson looked more like the guy who won back-to-back titles at Torrey Pines in 2000 and 2001 than the guy who appeared confused by Jones’ handiwork and Woods’ dominance at what is a home game.
Particularly when compared with the other half of the marquee, which was on his way to the airport by the time Mickelson and Watson finished their private duel.
Following a steady start to the week (69-69), Woods ballooned to a 5-over-par weekend and carded back-to-back over-par cards at Torrey Pines for the first time as a professional (74-75). He finished tied for 44th, his highest finish at Torrey Pines as a professional, and headed back to Isleworth looking for answers of his own.
“The old motor patterns are still there, and that is the thing. I'm going to have to fight through that. And I've done it before, and there's no reason I can't do it again,” said Woods, who hit less than 50 percent of Torrey’s fairways (25 of 56) and only 48 of 72 greens in regulation.
“Old motor patterns” is starting to sound like an indictment of former swing coach Hank Haney, until the world No. 3 reminds the impatient masses that his previous makeovers, one under Haney and two with Butch Harmon, also came with predictable performance ebbs.
“I went through a stretch there from '97, the middle of '97 to May of '99 when I only won one tournament. So I've been through stretches like that before, and it takes time,” said Woods, whose next start will be the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic next month.
If Woods’ weekend retreat was concerning to Tour types pining for a comeback in a contract year, they could take solace in a leaderboard dotted with more storylines than a Super Bowl media day.
Young guns Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney both roared to top-10 finishes with super Sundays. Johnson went round in 66 while Watney posted a 63.
“I cannot believe what Nick Watney shot,” Mackay deadpanned, “he played the North Course, right?”
Star-in-the-making Jhonattan Vegas, fresh off his first Tour victory at last week’s Bob Hope Classic, was vying for a rookie double until his 5-iron second shot from the rough splashed into Devlin’s Billabong in front of the 18th green.
Anthony Kim, Brandt Snedeker, Hunter Mahan and Bill Haas – who began the final round tied with Mickelson – also posted top 10s, giving youth a clear 1-up lead in what the Tour hopes is a season-long generation gap.
But it was the guy who couldn’t make the travelling team at the University of Georgia who proved once and for all that the South Course, at least the mutated version that Jones gave the golf world in 2001, is the realm of the bombers and the bold, regardless of what Mickelson may or may not have learned in a decade of defeat. He also put Gen X on the board. At least for now.