A day for fresh starts at Torrey Pines
SAN DIEGO – Torrey Pines was supposed to be the perfect place for a fresh start, and it was every bit of that.
Just not for Tiger Woods.
Sunghoon Kang, a 24-year-old from South Korea who had never played a PGA Tour event until this year, handled the North Course with ease Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open for an 8-under 64.
He had a one-shot lead over Rickie Fowler, who last month was voted the rookie of the year, and Alex Prugh, who also was on the 2010 rookie ballot. One shot behind was Chris Kirk, another rookie this year who shot 66 despite getting a cortisone shot in his foot on Tuesday.
"There's a lot of young guys playing well," Fowler said. "There's a lot of young guys that are going to be out here pretty soon that you haven't heard about or seen on tour yet. So it's pretty cool to be a part of that movement. And we're not scared to go out and play, and definitely be in contention."
Woods had few complaints, except for the shots he left above the hole and the putts he didn't make.
He opened with a 3-under 69 on the slightly easier North Course, a stress-free round in which he didn't make a bogey, but didn't make a birdie on any of the par 5s that are all reachable in two shots if the drive finds short grass. Woods was in the deep stuff all four times.
"I'm happy with the way I played, absolutely," Woods said. "I could have been a lot better if I took care of the par 5s a little bit more, but obviously, I didn't do that."
Woods has won seven times as a pro at Torrey Pines, the most of any course he has played. And while he was five shots behind, that was hardly alarming. In his last five starts — all wins — on this public course along the Pacific, he was at least five shots back after the first round in four of those wins.
He grabbed most of the attention on a spectacular day of sunshine because it was his first round of a new year, significant mainly considering the previous year. Woods failed to win on the PGA Tour for the first time in his career as he dealt with the public humiliation of being caught in extramarital affairs, which led to a divorce that became official in August.
Woods showed signs of returning to his old form in his final event last year, when he lost in a playoff to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell at the Chevron World Challenge.
Nearly two months later, he didn't look much differently.
"Obviously, we need more work, but it's progressing, which is good," Woods said of his swing.
Phil Mickelson is a three-time winner at Torrey Pines, the last one coming in 2001 before the South Course was redesigned to add length for a U.S. Open in 2008 that Woods wound up winning.
Mickelson doesn't like the changes, although he has played enough now that he's starting to figure out the subtleties of the South Course greens. It showed for Lefty, whose back-nine 32 carried him to a 67. That was as low as anyone got on the South, a score matched by the likes of John Daly and two more rookies, Fabian Gomez of Argentina and Keegan Bradley.
"It's nice to get off to a good start," said Mickelson. "You really don't know how you stand in the field until you play both courses. There's a fairly good discrepancy between the scores on the South and the North. But I'm looking forward to tomorrow's round."
That was probably the biggest surprise — other than Daly — on the opening day.
Yes, the North remains the easier of the two tracks. But it's not the pushover it used to be. The North is longer — not just the 90 or so extra yards, but the rough so long that it's actually tougher than the South Course. The discrepancy was 1.8 shots, but consider that only four years ago, the North played 4.7 shots easier.
Woods said the North fairways were some of the toughest players will see all year, and it was tough to argue with that. Not only are they narrow, but the fairways are slanted and the conditions are so firm that it was difficult for the big hitters to stay in the short grass.
Kang and the other youngster head to the South, which is measures 7,698 yards and usually puts up quite the test.
He didn't start learning the game until 1996 under the guidance of his father, and fell in love with it immediately. To help his progress, Kang moved to Dallas and hooked up with Hank Haney, working with him for five years.
"But then he got Tiger, and he kind of got busy," Kang said. "Yeah, he was kind of busy to watch me, and I just left him."
One thing Kang did that Woods didn't was hit the ball in the fairway on the par 5s.
"This course, all the par 5s are reachable, so I really tried to keep to the fairways and it worked really well," Kang said. "And I really had a good chance on the par 5s. That's why I played very well today."
He played them in 4 under, including an eagle on No. 14 when he chipped in from 25 feet.
Daly was the last player to win at Torrey Pines when Woods was in the field. That was in 2004, and Daly has never won anywhere again. One round is not enough to suggest it might happen again.
"This place means a lot to me," Daly said. "The top golfers play here every year. That says something."
His reference to top players was mainly directed at Woods and Mickelson, along with Vijay Singh, who opened with a 72. As Thursday showed, it's not a bad place for the young guys, either.