Fitting Finish to a Fine Week at Torrey Pines

The leaders in the Farmers Insurance Open — including winner Bubba Watson —are showered with applause by the gallery as they approach the 18th green at Torrey Pines South.

The grandstands surrounding the 18th hole on the Torrey Pines South Course were filled with spectators Sunday, hours before the leaders of the Farmers Insurance Open approached the final hole. As the day wore on, fans began crowding the ropes adjacent to the green and then along both sides of the fairway. By the time the final groups approached, the gallery grew to the point of gridlock.

Much of the buzz earlier in the week was the return of Tiger Woods to Torrey Pines, but he would finish well down the leaderboard at just 1-under-par for the tournament. Instead, the story in the tournament’s final stages was a pair of left-handers and a rookie named Vegas.

Bubba Watson clung to a one-stroke lead over playing partner Jhonattan Vegas and Phil Mickelson, who was just behind them in the final group, going into the par-5 18th hole.

Bubba Watson received a trophy, surfboard and check for $1,044,000 for winning the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open.

Watson was on his way to a birdie on the 18th. That meant if Vegas was to catch Watson, he had to go for broke on the final hole and attempt to reach the green in two shots if he was to have a chance at a tie.

“I knew I had to make an eagle and put a little pressure on him,” said Vegas, whose shot was short, splashing into the pond in front of the green. “Unfortunately, things didn’t go my way.”

That made Mickelson the only man with a chance at catching Watson. Sitting 72 yards away from the hole after two shots, Mickelson had to hole out to tie. He walked all the way up to the green, studied the situation around the cup and walked all the way back, fans shouting encouragement every step of the way. Making such a shot would be a miracle for most, but not out of the realm of possibility for Mickelson.

“I realize it’s Phil Mickelson,” said Watson. “He can make any shot he wants to. He’s a great wedge player. I knew he had a shot at making it, so I didn’t get too excited.”

Mickelson took his swing and the ball took flight. Mickelson’s caddied pulled the flagstick as the ball headed toward the hole. It hit within a foot of its target, then rolled to a stop 4 feet, 4 inches from the cup. The shot was close enough that the crowd held its collective breath, exhaled an audible groan of disappointment, then applauded the effort.

Watson was in the scorer’s tent signing for the 67 on his scorecard when he realized he had won the tournament.

“Over the radio they said he missed it, so I teared up a little bit,” said Watson, whose 16-under-par 272 total was one stroke better than Mickelson, who shot a 69 in the final round.

It was the second career win for Watson, who earned $1,044,000 for the week’s work.

“It just shows I can do it,” said Watson, who then added with a laugh, “I’ve done it twice now. I’m only like 50 (victories) behind Phil and 80 behind Tiger, so they better watch out.”

The trophy that came with the victory will go on Watson’s mantle. And the surfboard he also was presented? What he does with that remains to be seen.

“I’ve never surfed in my life, so I have no idea,” said Watson. “You know what, I’ve got a lake house in North Carolina, and I’ll probably take it out on the water just to see if I can stand up on it when there’s no waves and try to make it into a paddle board.”


Tiger is the Talk of Torrey Pines

Tiger Woods tees off in Wednesday's pro-am at Torrey Pines.

The last time Tiger Woods walked the grounds of the Torrey Pines Golf Course was during his 2008 U.S. Open playoff victory. It was just Woods, Rocco Mediate and about 30,000 fans who made the surroundings seem more like a rock concert than a golf tournament.

Woods returned Wednesday morning — and so did the crowds.

Maybe not 30,000, but, heck, this was only the pro-am. The four-day tournament begins Thursday morning. Woods is again paired with Mediate — hmmm, that seems like more than just a coincidence — and young Anthony Kim in a group that tees off at 9 a.m. on the 10th hole of the North Course.

Most of the pros had a handful of people — perhaps a dozen — following them during the pro-am. Hometown favorite Phil Mickelson’s gallery was the largest, numbering into the hundreds, before Tiger stepped to the tee. Upwards of 800 people gathered when Woods went off Wednesday on the South Course’s 10th hole. It seemed like each one of them was holding up a camera — or a camera phone — to record the moment. They knew to get their pictures while the getting was good. Spectators are allowed to take photos the first three days of the week, then it’s left to the professionals. To limit the distraction of shutters and flashes going off at inappropriate times, only media members are allowed to photograph the players once the tournament begins.

Tournament officials expect the presence of Woods — who missed the 2009 tournament recovering from a knee injury and last year’s event because of personal problems — will bring an additional 30,000 spectators out for the event.

He brings out an extraordinary number of people to chronicle his exploits as well. The interview area was expanded this year in the media tent in anticipation of Tiger’s participation. Nearly two dozen television cameras, a dozen still photographers and 70 writers filled the room to overflowing for his morning press conference.

A young fan snaps a photo of Tiger Woods walking up the 18th fairway at Torrey Pines South.

Nearly two dozen television cameras were trained on Tiger Woods while 70 members of the media sat and took notes during a press conference before Wednesday's round.

That’s Woods’ rock-star status on the Tour. How’s this for a contrast: Jhonattan Vegas, fresh off Sunday’s victory in the Bob Hope Classic, entered the interview room a minute after Woods departed. By the time Vegas settled into his chair, all but three of the TV cameras had been packed up and fewer than a dozen reporters remained seated.

Woods was on the tee 90 minutes after the press conference. Several cheers greeted Woods when he was announced at the start of his round. And people were still buzzing 2 1/2 hours later as he came up the 18th fairway. Woods’ second shot on the 570-yard, par-5 hole sailed over a pond, bounced a couple of times before trickling into the bunker beyond, causing one fan to exclaim, “Who the heck hit that?”

Who else?

Reaching the green in two shots on the hole — especially with the pond guarding the green — is a quite feat, even for the pros.

After Woods chipped on and putted out, it was on to the No. 1 tee, where he quickly hit and was on his way again.

“Oh, I just missed him,” said one disappointed fan who walked up as Woods made his way down the first fairway. Not to worry. There will be plenty of opportunities to see him and the other 155 players entered in the tournament.

Woods said he holds a special place in his heart for San Diego in general and Torrey Pines in particular.

“I came down here and watched Andy Williams (the tournament’s sponsor from 1968-88), so for me this was the first PGA Tour event I’ve ever seen,” said Woods, whose father Earl brought him to the tournament as a youngster. “It obviously goes way back for me. . . . I played here as a junior. I came down here and played the South Course when I was 7 or 8. So it goes way back for me.

“It means a lot to come back down here. I have so many friends and family down here that come and watch. Coming to this event means a lot to me.”

Woods has won this event six times, including four straight titles from 2005-08.

“Having him back is a great plus for this tournament,” said Mickelson. “He has kept this field strong and kept the interest in the event television-wise, media-wise, very high. His presence has been great.”

And how does Mickelson expect Woods to play this week?

“I expect that he’ll be the Tiger that we’ve known for over a decade,” said Mickelson, adding with a laugh, “Unfortunately.”