Tiger and Rory headline elite Torrey Pines field

January 22, 2020
Justin Ray

For the tenth time in his career, Tiger Woods will open his competitive year at maybe the one venue most synonymous with his dominance, Torrey Pines.

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This distinction is not without warranted debate. Torrey is one of three different venues in which Tiger has won eight PGA Tour titles – he’s done it at Bay Hill and Firestone, too. Nobody else has won more than six times at a single course in Tour history.

From 1998 through 2013, Tiger was a combined 173-under-par in the Farmers Insurance Open – a full 80 strokes ahead of Phil Mickelson, his nearest competitor in that statistic. Over the last thirty years, Woods has more rounds led (13), rounds of 66 or better (12) and more birdies/eagles per round (4.91) of anyone in this event. That highlight array isn’t even including his near-mythical one-legged 2008 U.S. Open win.

Missing the fairway has not been penalizing to Tiger in his victories at Torrey Pines: in his seven Farmers wins, he has averaged less than 50% fairways hit, and has had an average driving accuracy rank outside the top-50. That’s not a trait specific to Woods; only two of the last 19 winners of this event have ranked in the top-ten that week in fairways.

Course management and iron play will be important this week – two things Woods has an abundance of ability in. Since 2006, Farmers winners have hit 74% of the greens in regulation and averaged about eight bogeys or worse for the tournament. Tiger hit 76% of his greens and had eight bogeys in his Zozo Championship win last fall.

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Whether or not he finds success this week, watching Woods play a golf course where he’s made history is a treat golf fans shouldn’t take for granted.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

The South Course at Torrey Pines featured the most difficult fairways to hit on the PGA Tour last season, yielding less than 53 percent. It’s also difficult to get it close when missing the fairway – Torrey South ranked as the 7th-toughest course on Tour in 2019 in approach shot proximity from the rough.

The putting metrics, though, are what really stand out. The South Course has ranked either 1st or 2nd in difficulty putting between four and eight feet each of the last four PGA Tour seasons. It’s ranked in the top-ten in difficulty putting inside ten feet every year since 2005.

This has led to a bit of a neutralizing impact on hot putting – the average field ranks of the last ten winners here are significantly better in strokes gained tee-to-green (12.9) and greens hit (13.8) than in strokes gained putting (24.8). Basically, everyone is going to miss a few putts this week. Justin Rose ranked 67th in the field here last year in putting between four and eight feet – and won by two shots.

NOTES ON PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

Rory McIlroy can do something he has never done in his professional career this week: win his opening start of a calendar year. Incredibly, McIlroy has never done this since turning professional, even though his play in those events has been terrific. In 12 year-opening starts since 2008, McIlroy has finished runner-up five times – and in the top-five ten times – but has yet to claim a win.

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– Last PGA Tour season, McIlroy posted a strokes gained per round average of 2.55, the best single season of anybody not named Tiger Woods since tracking began 15 years ago. Five different players have led the Tour in that stat the last five years: Henrik Stenson (2015), Jason Day (2016), Rickie Fowler (2017), Dustin Johnson (2018) and McIlroy. The last player to lead the statistic in back-to-back seasons was Woods in 2006 and 2007.

– With three runner-up finishes in his last six starts, one player knocking on the door of a potentially massive season is Xander Schauffele. That should be little surprise to anyone closely following Xander’s ascent: from 2018 to 2019, he improved in every strokes gained metric tracked by the Tour by at least 30 spots. The San Diego native and SDSU product should be on everyone’s short list of picks to win this week.

– In 2017, Jon Rahm earned his first PGA Tour victory in this event, becoming the first player to win his Farmers Insurance Open debut since Arnold Palmer in 1957 (it was the San Diego Open Invitational in Palmer’s day).

Rahm has loved playing in California in his young pro career. In fact, since the beginning of 2017, Rahm has the best scoring average of any player in PGA Tour events in The Golden State (68.9). He also ranks first in cumulative score to par (-114) and birdies/eagles per round (4.93) in that span (among players with 16+ rounds).

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– Defending champ Justin Rose will try to become the third player to win this event back-to-back – Tiger and Phil are the only two to accomplish that. Much has been made of Justin’s improved putting, and rightfully so: after ranking 122nd in strokes gained putting in the 2016-17 PGA Tour season, he’s ranked 21st and 17th the last two years.

But in ‘18-19, it was Rose’s wedge play metrics that skyrocketed: from 50 to 75 yards away, he went from 183rd in average approach proximity to 6th last season. From 50 to 125 yards, he went from 129th to 1st.

– For a man that looked near-invincible nine months ago, it has been a rough stretch for Francesco Molinari. Since nearly winning the Masters last April, Molinari does not have a top-ten finish in 15 starts around the world. That includes last week, where he missed the cut at The American Express. Francesco is making his fourth Farmers start – his best finish is a T-14 three years ago.

– Last week, Phil Mickelson memorably referred to his ability to still ‘hit bombs’ despite his 50th birthday coming up this summer. Club head speed certainly hasn’t been in question for Lefty: last season, he ranked 24th in average club head speed, up nearly 70 spots from two seasons prior.

A three-time winner of this event, Phil has racked up 44 rounds in the 60s here over the last thirty years, eight more than any other player.

– With little more than a made cut this week, Charles Howell III will pass $1 million in official earnings for the 2019-20 season, making it 20 years in a row he has accomplished that feat. It’s a testament to consistency: in PGA Tour history, Mickelson (24 in a row and counting) is the only player to do that in 20 straight seasons. Howell III has the best scoring average of any player on the South Course over the previous ten years (70.57; minimum 10 rounds played).

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

From 2003 through 2008, there were seven PGA Tour events held at Torrey Pines (six Farmers Insurance Opens and the 2008 U.S. Open). Tiger won six times and finished tied for tenth in the other. Meaning: of the 1,076 opposing players in those combined fields, Woods beat 1,067 of them.