EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
Through the years, Torrey Pines has evolved into the unofficial annual opener on the PGA Tour schedule. Tiger Woods making it his first start each January and winning eight times played a pivotal role in the Farmers Insurance Open becoming an elite full-field tournament loaded with star power.
The demanding Torrey Pines South course is another key element in the tournament’s progression. Golfers know the tight fairways and segmented greens will provide an accurate barometer for their swings as they prepare for the Players, Masters and other career-defining season events that lie ahead.
There’s plenty to love about the weather in Southern California in January and the views from Torrey Pines, across the Pacific as the sun shines on La Jolla, rival, if not surpass, Pebble Beach for the best on Tour.
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The heavy hitters have returned to two of the world’s best municipal courses again this week. The golfers play one round on the South and one round on the gentler North. Those surviving the 36-hole cut return to the South, stretched now to 7,765 yards with new tees added at 4, 9, 10, 15 and 17 since last year and positioned to make the bunkers a factor and the fairways even more difficult to find.
As we turn a page on the Fantasy calendar, elite ball-striking is paramount this week. There’s no faking it around Torrey Pines. Spend your days in the gnarly rough and it’s likely to be a short one. Speaking of short, power is required off the tee. Whistling long irons into pins tucked on corners behind bunkers can make for a long week. A caddie once described the greens as looking like Mickey Mouse’s head with the hole locations cut in the friendly rodent’s ears. Distance control and course management gleaned through experience are imperative. Wise, capable players aim their shots toward the mouse’s mouth, pleased to putt uphill for medium-length birdies on the tricky poa annua greens — annually among the most difficult to putt on Tour.
The greens on the North Course were switched from poa annua to bentgrass since last year’s tournament. With light winds in place a year ago, the average score was sub-70 on the North. Expect players to make their birdie runs there in one of the first two rounds and hold on for dear life on the South, where anything under par is a respectable round.
The forecast is perfect, with the breeze never exceeding 10 mph. The over / under on the winning score is 16.5 under on the par-72 layout. The best shall rise at Torrey Pines once again.
Golfer power rankings
25. Tom Hoge – Has sandwiched three missed cuts around a T-12 at Torrey Pines or he’d be higher. Still, another under-the-radar, long-game overachiever with the impressive combination of 19th SG: approach the green and 50th SG: putting.
24. Nick Watney – T-29 at AMEX; though it’s been a while – the last of six top 10s was in 2015 – feels good vibes here (2009 winner). Driver will be critical – 73rd in distance, 149th in accuracy – because irons are solid (59th SG: approach the green).
23. Pat Perez – Has been hit-or-miss at Torrey in recent years with two top 5s and two MCs in his last five starts. Native son knows the grass and terrain. Finding fairways and (56th in driving accuracy) and course knowledge propel him to the weekend.
22. Sepp Straka – Tied for 13th in Torrey debut last year and comes in hot after a T-4 last week, rising out of the Coachella Valley, across the San Jacinto Mountains and into lovely La Jolla. Yet another solid ball-striker on our roster (44th SG: tee-to-green).
21. Rickie Fowler – Through eight measured rounds in 2019-20, he’s second on the Tour in driving accuracy. Had a good run here early in last decade but has fallen prey to the turkey vultures recently missing four of last six cuts, with nothing better than a T-61.
20. Xander Schauffele – Outside the majors, probably the tournament the San Diego native wants to win. Let one slip away last time out, butchering the 72nd hole at Kapalua and losing in sudden death. Weak track record at Torrey with a T-25 and three MCs.
19. Brandt Snedeker – Golf can be difficult to explain. Ball-striking has never been Snedeker’s strength, he doesn’t hit it far or particularly straight, however, his Farmers record – seven top 10s in 13 starts and a win in 2016 can’t be ignored.
18. Matthew Wolff – Making his Farmers debut, he’s second on Tour in strokes gained: off the tee this season and 105th in driving accuracy, respectable considering his prodigious length. T-61 last week.
17. Joel Dahmen – No holes from the tee box to the green. Top 50 in SG: tee-to-green, approach the green, around the green and total. Putter has been an impediment (168th strokes gained) yet there’s plenty to like about a Washington native on the west coast.
16. Hideki Matsuyama – He has eight top-20 finishes in his last nine starts worldwide and battled through tough conditions for a T-12 at Waialae. A trio of top 20s at the Farmers since 2014, including a T-3 last year.
15. Lanto Griffin – Just keeps rolling. Now fourth in FedEx Cup after sparkling 64 on Sunday vaulted him to T-7 at Sony Open. Look long and hard at his profile and it’s difficult to find a weakness. He’s earned a consideration each week, on any venue.
14. Joaquin Niemann – Regulars here know how we feel about the Chilean star, especially on those weeks where premium ball-striking is rewarded. He’s 23rd in SG: off the tee and 35th in SG: approach the green but must find more fairways this week (144th driving accuracy).
13. Scottie Scheffler – Early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, the 23-year-old budding star recorded his fourth top 10 and sixth top 25 in eight starts. Pounds the driver (15th) and is 23rd in strokes gained: tee-to-green. First time at Torrey Pines, though.
12. Ryan Palmer – Made a mess of the 72nd hole at Waialae two weeks ago (T-4) but he’s 11th on Tour in SG: off the tee and 33rd in SG: tee-to-green. Has also developed an affinity for Torrey South of late, finishing runner-up in ‘18 and T-13 last year.
11. Tony Finau – He’s 5-for-5 in top 25s at Torrey with a T-4 in 2017. Putter has been hurtful (217th strokes gained) in ‘19-20 but he’s an elite striker of the golf ball, ranking second in SG: tee-to-green. Must find a few more fairways this week (186th).
10. Patrick Reed – Suffered from a Kapalua hangover and MC’d at Waialae, but likes Torrey with consecutive top 25s. Will be interesting to listen closely if he contends on the weekend in front of the largest galleries on Tour to date in 2019-20.
9. Collin Morikawa – Did someone say ball-striking matters this week? His beautiful swing turned a touch goofy in the crazy Waialae crosswinds but the he’ll return to form this week amid a gentle breeze on the majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific.
8. Cameron Smith – The 2020 Sony Open champion is a stone-cold baller. The putt he made on the 72nd hole at Waialae to force the playoff was just another example of his game and grit. He’s finished top 20 here the last two years and we’re all in on the Aussie.
7. Sungjae Im – Ho-hum another top 10 for Im last week. He’s reached auto-pick status because of his ridiculous consistency and impeccable ball-striking (33rd SG: off the tee, 28th SG: approach the green). Struggles to save par sometimes but so do most at Torrey Pines.
6. Harris English – Closing 74 dropped him to T-48 last week but he’s 20th in FedEx Cup and possesses the proper statistical profile – fourth on Tour in greens in regulation, sixth in SG: off the tee and 16th in SG: tee-to-green. Trio of top 20s in last four Torrey starts.
5. Justin Rose – The defending champion has been average by his lofty standards in the last year. Remains eighth in the world, still has only three top 10s in 12 events since a T-3 at the U.S. Open. Runner-up finish at Singapore Open last week is promising.
4. Gary Woodland – No. 33 in FedEx Cup, has made the cut in all 10 Farmers starts and finished top 20 the last four years. Also, surprisingly, ranks fourth on Tour in driving accuracy. Less surprising, the reigning U.S. Open champ is 12th in greens in regulation.
3. Rory McIlroy – No. 2 player in the world and reigning FedEx Cup champion makes his second appearance at Torrey Pines and first start of 2020. Tied for fifth here at 14 under and if he’s driving it long and straight – per usual – can attack any flag.
2. Tiger Woods – Won this tournament seven times and added the 2008 U.S. Open here. No better place for him to become the PGA Tour’s career victory leader. Looks like a new man since his knee cleanup last fall. Not going to rule him out anytime soon.
1. Jon Rahm – Won here in 2017, tied for fifth in 2019. Makes a strong case for best player in the world currently, or at least a solid 1A. Chipped away rust with a T-10 at Kapalua and will be fully engaged paired with Woods in the first two rounds.