SAN DIEGO - For the first time in six years, the Buick Invitational has the prime spot on the West Coast schedule.
It’s the week after the Super Bowl, a quiet time in the world of sports, before pitchers and catchers report, the green flag drops at Daytona, before March turns mad. This is the week for snowbound folks to change the channel to the PGA Tour and witness the spectacular combination of blue surf and green turf.
What they won’t see is another familiar sight at Torrey Pines — Tiger Woods. Woods has been winning at Torrey Pines since he was a teenager, and he practically owns the public course along the cliffs of La Jolla. He has won the Buick Invitational six times, including the last four in a row, and saved his biggest impression for last summer when he won an epic U.S. Open by playing 91 holes on one good leg and beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff.
“We miss our defending champion,” said Larry Peck, the Buick-Pontiac promotions manager.
Just his luck, the tournament can’t even sell the other half of the U.S. Open duel because Mediate withdrew on Monday.
Golf is off to a solid start this year, even if the audience was small. But even some golf fans don’t pay attention until Woods shows up.
The Buick Invitational traditionally has the highest TV ratings on the West Coast because that’s where Woods has made his debut the last three years, and it didn’t hurt that he won.
“I think that this tournament certainly misses his presence,” Phil Mickelson said. “He’s been such a mainstay of this event. He’s played so well here. Plus, he had just won the U.S. Open here, as well as last year’s tournament. I miss the opportunity to compete against him. We all do. And we hope that he gets back out soon.”
Woods has not hit a meaningful shot since tapping in for par on the seventh hole at Torrey last June to beat Mediate on the 19th hole of the Monday playoff. He had season-ending surgery on his left knee a week later, and while he is in full practice mode in Florida, he still is not ready to return. The first order of business is the birth of his next child, expected as early as next week.
Along with Woods, also missing is the suspended John Daly (2004) and Jose Maria Olazabal (2002), who is recovering from rheumatism and played last week in Dubai for the first time in nearly two months.
The Buick Invitational isn’t left with chopped liver. Mickelson is a three-time winner at Torrey Pines and a San Diego native.
Making his PGA Tour debut this week is Padraig Harrington, the player of the year in 2008 with victories in the British Open and PGA Championship. Even so, they are the only two players from the top 10 in the world ranking.
Not only is the Buick Invitational missing its star attraction and four-time defending champion, Woods agreed last year to end his nine-year endorsement with Buick and cash-strapped GM.
“From an advertising and promotion standpoint, our view is we still need to advertise, now more than ever,” Peck said. “But based on the whole economic situation, we’re trimming back everywhere we can.”