SAN DIEGO – Torrey Pines might not have a particular type, but it favors certain players.
Given the South Course’s transition to one of the PGA Tour’s most outsized tests, it would reason that length above all else is what plays on the SoCal muni. But considering the familiar cast assembled atop the Farmers Insurance Open leaderboard the keys to the kingdom are a little more nuanced than that.
Power certainly matters on the 7,765-yard behemoth as evidenced by another cameo by J.B. Holmes, a runner-up at Torrey Pines in 2015 and serious contender in ’16 and ’18. The big fellow from Kentucky averaged over 300 yards off the tee on Day 1 and was among a large group tied for third place at 7 under through two rounds.
“I really hit the driver well, so that kind of put me in position. I hit my mid-irons pretty good and I made a couple putts, so it's just kind of all-around pretty solid,” Holmes said before adding the obvious, “the best has definitely been the driver, hit a bunch of fairways, so that's been the main key.”
The same could be said for 2017 champion Jon Rahm who is again in contention at 5 under with a 300-yard driving average that ranks seventh in the field.
Tiger Woods would be the most obvious example of how power prevails on the South Course having won eight events, including the 2008 U.S. Open, at Torrey Pines. In his youthful prime Woods made the most of his power advantage, but through age and injury he’s acquired an off-speed pitch and is far from the longest player in this week’s field (42nd in driving distance) and yet he’s squarely in the hunt at 4 under par.
But labeling the South Course an exclusively bomber’s ballpark would be superficial and statistically wrong.
Front-runner Ryan Palmer scorched the North Course with 11 birdies for a 62 Friday and yet ranks 21st in driving distance. For Palmer, who lost a playoff to Jason Day at the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open, the winning formula is far more complicated.
“This golf course, it's a matter of hitting it in the fairway, for sure. You come into a week like this knowing the big guns are here,” Palmer said. “The way I'm driving it, I knew this golf course you could shoot 5, 6 under par pretty easy.”
That outlook is sure to change over the weekend with just the South Course looming. Palmer knows exactly what to expect over the final two rounds after an identical second-round 62 on the North Course put him in contention in 2006. He followed that effort with rounds of 75-73 to tie for 35th.
“That's why I disappeared from this tournament for [several] years,” Palmer said while laughing. “We came back fine in '18 to play it and I found the golf course I liked. A tough golf course on the South plays to my game right now.”
Tough means many things to many players, but at Torrey Pines it’s a far more complicated formula than simply having to hit a lot of drivers. Brandt Snedeker might be the ultimate example of this.
Snedeker has won the Farmers Insurance Open twice and has seven top-10 finishes in the event in 13 trips to San Diego. He also added a tie for ninth on the South Course at the 2008 U.S. Open, and yet, in the hierarchy of the game’s longest players he’s simply not in the conversation.
He ranked 156th in driving distance last season on Tour and is 71st this week with a 278-yard average, and he is still squarely poised just two shots behind Palmer in second place following a second-round 67 on the South Course.
“For me, hit the ball in the fairway. If you don't hit the ball in the fairway here, it's going to be a long day,” Snedeker said. “I'm not a long hitter like some of these guys are out here, so I've got to hit the fairway.”
Snedeker’s affinity for the South Course goes well beyond the short grass. For one of the game’s most prolific putters, his success at Torrey Pines has more to do with the even shorter grass on the greens.
In both of his victories at Torrey Pines Snedeker ranked inside the top 10 in strokes gained: putting, which is somewhat surprising given the Tennessee native didn’t grow up honing his skills on poa greens. Even still, he learned early in his PGA Tour career he was an immediate match with the South Course.
“I played here my rookie year and putted unbelievable my first time ever on poa annua that I just kind of never had a bad feeling about it,” said Snedeker, who finished third in his Torrey Pines debut in 2007. “Poa annua also really tests you to hit solid putts over and over and over again.”
Whatever demands the South Course may present, Friday's all-too-familiar leaderboard proves certain players - regardless of type - will often fare well.