Farmers Insurance Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
TORREY PINES is a very special place, not least because it is where Tiger Woods won the last of his 14 major titles, the US Open, 10 years ago. It is also the home of the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament that Woods has won seven times. How fitting then that it should also be the venue for his latest, much-awaited comeback.
The 42-year-old simply adores there place, having won this event in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and, most recently, in 2013. His most impressive victory came in 2008 when he recorded a 72-hole total of 269, 19 under par, to triumph by eight shots. And later that year he would return to San Diego to win the US Open on the same course, beating Rocco Mediate, the veteran American. It was a memorable triumph because Woods achieved it while playing with a broken leg – and it took him 91 holes to see off the dogged challenge of Mediate.
Since that time there have been several Woods’ comebacks, but there is a sense among his peers that this one just might be different. That optimism comes after his play at the Hero Challenge in the Bahamas in December, where he finished ninth in a field of 18, shooting three rounds in the 60s. On the face of it, there may seem to be nothing remarkable about that, but there were plenty of positive signs. He drove the ball well, he hit plenty of world-class iron shots and he putted well. Yes, there were still signs of frailty with his chipping but the thing that struck everybody was how well Woods swung the club that week.
And, for once, he actually appeared to be enjoying enjoying himself on a golf course, something we haven’t seen a great deal of in recent times. He said afterwards that it was the first time in years that he had been able to swing a golf club pain-free. Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? But all the evidence was that he was telling the truth. His fellow professionals spoke in glowing terms about how well Woods looked and about how impressed they were with his ball striking. More remarkably, he was hitting the ball further than he has done for an awful long time – and mostly straight from the tee.
In recent years, whenever Woods has actually made it onto the course his swing has looked fast and out of control, but he now looks like the man who won all those majors, who dominated golf in a way not seen since Jack Nicklaus was in his prime. Of course he says that he believes he can still win more majors, and most of us would love to see that happen. The reality may be somewhat different.
One thing you can be sure of, however, is that when he steps onto the first tee on Thursday, millions of people will be watching on television. When he announced that this would his first tournament of 2018, ticket sales rocketed. He played here 12 months ago, of course, and duly missed the cut before flying to Dubai the following week to take part in the Dubai Desert Classic, a tournament from which he had to withdraw after just one round. It later emerged that Woods was going to require further back surgery, and we wondered if we would ever see him on a golf course again.
This time, it seems, he has followed doctors’ orders to the letter and will turn up for the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open with real optimism. There is no way of knowing whether or not his back will stand up to the rigours of tournament play, but everybody involved with the PGA Tour will be hoping that he is able to get through it and that we get an opportunity to once again marvels at the skills of this incredible athlete.
Can he win? Of course he can. Will he win? No. That is not to say that he won’t win more tournaments, but it would be too much to ask that he adds title number eight this week. In truth, Woods, and everybody else, would be happy to see him make the cut and finish in the top 20. But I have a feeling that he may do somewhat better than that.
The tournament was won in dramatic fashion 12 months ago by the young Spaniard Jon Rahm, when he holed a shot from the back of the 72nd hole for a dramatic eagle. He eventually won by three shots from Charles Howell III and Pan Cheng-tsung. It was a life-changing victory for Rahm, who later joined the European Tour and added another two wins to his CV. Rahm has come from nowhere to reach second in the world in little more than 18 months and it seems that every time he plays he finds himself in contention. He strikes the ball quite beautifully with a swing that is simple and powerful. He is a certainty to make Thomas Bjorn’s European Ryder Cup team and is seen by many as a future world No. 1. He will return to Torrey Pines with plenty of positive memories and it should surprise nobody if he retains his title.
At a time when the game is being dominated by a wave of talented young golfers – Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Xander Shaufelle, Rahm – it is easy to forget that Rickie Fowler is still only 29. It is almost four years since he finished in the top five in each of the majors and after that performance in 2014 it seemed certain that it would only be a matter of time before he won his first major. It hasn’t happened, but many would argue that Fowler’s game has improved in that time. Putting his questionable fashion sense to one side for a moment, Fowler is one of the best putters on the planet, and he always seems to produce his best on tough courses. Torrey Pines fits that bill, and it is my belief that the American will win here and go on to have a stellar season on the PGA Tour.
Jon Rahm. His first title defence
Patrick Reed. Torrey Pines should be made for him
Xander Schauffele. No weaknesses
Jon Rahm. Big hitter with a wonderful touch on the greens
Patrick Reed. In need of a win – and soon
Xander Schauffele. Could easily turn out to be as good as Justin Thomas
Charles Howell III. Good enough to win
Ollie Schniederjans. Brilliant young player
Tony Finau. Magnificent athlete
Rickie Fowler. Ferocious competitor
Marc Leishman. Now one of the best in the business
Brandt Snedeker. Battling back from injury and illness
Tiger Woods. OK, I admit it, this is heart ruling head
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