Tiger Woods got the kindest of draws for the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open on Thursday.
He was part of the quarter of the field that began their tournament on arguably the most benign three-hole stretch at the 36-hole Torrey Pines golf complex.
Previously the opening holes on the North Course — until Tom Weiskopf’s renovation of the layout in 2016 — No. 10 is a par-five that’s reachable in two swings; No. 11 is a 339-yard par-four and the par-three 12th requires a “short” downhill shot of 204 yards.
And Woods’ standing after he’d played his first three competitive holes of 2020: one over par.
The rough start, which included a mediocre chip en route to par at 10 and a chunked pitch into a bunker at 11 that led to a bogey, might have indicated Woods would struggle to knock off the rust from not having competed since the Presidents Cup in mid-December.
Instead, Woods answered with a gritty effort that, if not stellar, produced some encouraging signs.
When Woods hit a deft chip to three feet and made birdie on No. 9 — his third red number of the day on a par-five — he closed a three-under-par 69 that put him tied for 21st in his first start trying to become the PGA Tour’s all-time wins leader at 83.
“Overall, I felt like the golf course was definitely gettable today,” Woods said. “The par-fives were all reachable, so I felt like I had to get something in the red.”
Woods was three strokes behind former PGA Championship winner winner Keegan Bradley, whose 66 came on the North, and Sebastian Cappelen, a 29-year-old rookie from Denmark who, in his first competitive round on the South Course, made eight birdies in his six-under round.
In recent years, a toughening of the North Course brought its scoring closer to that of the South, which hosted the 2008 U.S. Open and will do so again in 2021. But there was nearly a three-shot differential on this day — a 70.72 average on the North compared to 73.69 for the South.
That made Cappelen’s round more impressive. Only four of the top-20 scores came from the South. The next-best was the 67 of former Farmers champion Bubba Watson, who was fueled by holing a 100-yard approach shot for eagle on the par-five 18th.
“I’ll take it, especially because I didn’t play the back nine on that [South] golf course,” said Cappelen, who notched his best PGA Tour finish last week by tying for sixth in the American Express. “I just walked it [Wednesday] because there was so much golf last week.”
Getting off to strong starts on the North were world No. 2 Rory McIlroy (67) and No. 3 Jon Rahm (68).
Less successful while opening on the South was the Southern California super group of Phil Mickelson (72), Xander Schauffele (74) and Rickie Fowler (75).
Not only was Woods playing in an official stroke-play event for the first time since winning the Zozo Championship in Japan in late October, but also he was doing so with a new driver and new ball.
He was mostly pleased with his driving, hitting eight of 14 fairways while sometimes nearly matching the distance of playing partner Rahm, who is 19 years Woods’ junior.
“I can’t keep up with Rambo, are you kidding me?” Woods said with a laugh. “When he decides to let one go, I just don’t have that gear anymore.”
The groups that finished later, including those of Bradley and Cappelen, had to contend with an extra element late in the day: fog. It arrived while a number of groups were in the middle of the back nine.
Bradley said his threesome stood on their 16th tee of the day, North No. 7, and “there was a point where you literally could not see 20 feet in front of you — it was that thick.”
After the trio waited 20 to 30 minutes to play, Bradley said, a marshal who’d lived in San Diego contended they were done for the day. And then just as quickly as the fog appeared, it vanished.
“Thankfully, it cleared up,” Bradley said. “Especially playing the South [on Friday], you don’t want to have to get up extra early and burn a bunch of energy.”
Bradley, who eagled the North’s par-five fifth and made four birdies despite hitting only half the fairways, has been a Torrey contender, with two top-five finishes in the last three years. In 2018, he was fifth and was the only player to shoot four rounds in the 60s.
“I just like the courses that are right there in front of you. You can see what you have to do,” Bradley said. “There are no weird water hazards or weird doglegs or out-of-bounds.
“It’s really long, deep rough, really hard, and you’ve got to drive it in the fairway and hit good shots. It’s fun to play courses like that.”