SAN DIEGO -- The chatter and speculation hasn't stopped since the players arrived at Torrey Pines earlier in the week for the Farmers Insurance Open. The focus of such a busy week is sure to shift to another topic on Thursday.
Yes, there's a golf tournament to be played.
FARMERS INSURANCE OPEN
Tiger Woods is back on the course that has brought him seven titles as a pro, hoping to get a good idea where his game is headed this year. It's the first time he has played Torrey Pines when his game and his health were in reasonably good shape since that Monday playoff win at the 2008 U.S. Open.
Brandt Snedeker returns as the defending champion. So does Kyle Stanley, who served up the win to Snedeker last year when he made triple bogey on the final hole to lose his three-shot lead, and then lost in a playoff.
Phil Mickelson is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the first of his three PGA Tour wins at Torrey Pines, his home course on tour. He tees off Thursday on the North Course, which he has been hired to redesign.
It was easy to overlook all this for the three days leading up to the opening round. Credit that to Mickelson suggesting he might have to leave California because of the hit he's taking in federal and state tax increases on close to $50 million he brought in last year. Or players leaving a mandatory meeting just as quietly as they entered to learn about the proposed rule that affects long putters.
Or even PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem suggesting that bifurcation – two sets of rules – might work in some areas of golf, even though he doesn't think that would apply to anchored putting. On that issue, he said the tour prefers to follow whatever rules the USGA and Royal & Ancient Golf Club make.
Now for the golf.
The Farmers Insurance Open is the first PGA Tour event of the year on network television, the week the NFL takes off to get ready for the Super Bowl, and it offers magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean below the bluffs. And it usually serves up an interesting finish, though last year will be tough to top.
Stanley overpowered the South Course to build a three-shot lead, and then made the smart play by laying up short of the water on the par-5 closing hole. And that's where it all went wrong. His wedge spun off the green and into the water. He went well behind the flag on his next shot, lagged his putt down to just outside 3 feet and then missed that for an 8 to get into a playoff. Two holes later, Snedeker was posing with the trophy and Stanley was in tears.
''It's still pretty crazy when you look at the number of events that had to happen for me to get into a playoff, and then to get in the playoffs and win,'' Snedeker said. ''I obviously didn't want Kyle to have to go through that, but I had a great benefit from it, and I appreciate the fact that he did do that for me. And I hope I never return the favor, but you never know in this game. You might.''
Snedeker feels a connection to Torrey Pines. As a rookie, it looked as though he might shoot a 59 on the North Course. He was 10 under through 10 holes until he had to settle for a 61 that tied the course record. That was in 2007, and by the end of the week, Woods wound up the winner again. It was his seventh straight PGA Tour win, a streak that ended at his next tournament.
With so much buzz over tax rates and belly putters, Woods has been able to get around in relative peace. He at least arrived with a little more sleep, considering he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi last week and left two days earlier than he planned.
He has lived in Florida from the moment he turned pro, though Torrey Pines can feel like home.
''I feel comfortable here, there is no doubt,'' Woods said. ''There are few courses that are like that where I've had my share of success, either I've won or been in contention to win. This, Firestone, Augusta. I just feel comfortable on those venues, and I feel like my record over those three courses has been pretty good.''
Woods and Mickelson, always the top attraction at Torrey Pines, will be on different sides of the golf course the opening two rounds. Woods will be playing with Rickie Fowler and Nick Watney, who have their own connections to this public course along the Pacific.
Fowler grew up not too far away and made his U.S. Open debut at age 19 at Torrey Pines, where he made the cut and tied for 60th.
''It's one of my favorite courses,'' Fowler said. ''It's got the length. I like the small greens. I grew up on poa annua greens, and some guys don't like poa annua. I do. Obviously, there's some decent views. But it's just a great piece of property, being close to home. It's a special place for me.''
Woods won four straight years at Torrey Pines through 2008, a streak that ended when he didn't play while recovering from knee surgery. Watney won that year.
Fowler hasn't played with Woods since the Memorial last year, when they were paired in the final round. Woods got him by 17 shots that day – he closed with a 67 to win, while Fowler staggered home to an 84.
''I was just on the sidelines watching,'' Fowler said with a smile. ''I enjoy playing with Tiger. There is some extra energy out there. There are a lot of fans involved, and a lot of people moving around. So between Nick and I, we'll make for about 5 percent of the crowd out there. Tiger will take up the rest.''