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Two to the Fore!

Defending champion and hometown favorite Phil Mickelson.
Photo by M.J. Johnson

Defending champion and hometown favorite Phil Mickelson.

(page 1 of 2)

By late in the 2001 season, PGA locker rooms were alive with conversation about the South Course at San Diego’s Torrey Pines.

“I was at an October tournament in Florida, and players kept asking me what we’d done to the layout,” says Tom Wilson, executive director of the Buick Invitational, which returns to the local site for a February 4-10 run. “The buzz definitely is out there.”

What they’ve done to Torrey Pines South is a massive job of restructuring. Greens have been moved, new tees constructed, additional bunkers placed at favored landing areas and the course length allowed to grow from 7,055 feet to nearly 7,600. Course architect Rees Jones “was very sensitive about keeping the original design,” Wilson says, “but it will look a lot different to those who remember it from past years.”

The unveiling of Torrey Pines’ new face dovetails with the 50th anniversary of the PGA adding San Diego as an annual stop on its tour. It also leads off an enviable month of professional golf in the county. Eight days after the Buick Invitational shuts down, the Accenture Match Play Championship begins a week-long run at La Costa Resort & Spa.

Timing actually provides the two tournaments with a direct link. The Buick event is the final one used to determine world rankings, which in turn is used to determine invitations for the La Costa field. As one of four elements in the 2002 World Golf Championships, the Accenture offers positions on its match-play bracket to the 64 top-ranked players.

Torrey Pines is gearing up for a week of celebration. Defending champion Phil Mickelson is certain to be in the field and motivated by the opportunity to become the first contestant ever to win that tournament three consecutive years. The event also includes the electric presence of Tiger Woods, who has appeared here four times since turning pro—winning once and never finishing lower than fourth.

With Woods in the field, last year the tournament crested, both at the game and on the screen. The combination of a competitive struggle between Woods and hometown favorite Mickelson, and the scenic visuals transmitted to snowlocked areas of the country, sent TV ratings rocketing past all other regular PGA events and a couple of the majors.

There was no suggestion at birth that the tournament would mature into such a boffo production. Of course, Tiger Woods wasn’t around in 1952—and had he been, he wouldn’t have been playing. It would be nine more years before the PGA finally removed a reprehensible “Caucasians only” clause from its constitution, but San Diego became an early test case for minority participation.

Two African-American golfers, Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes, had moved through qualifying rounds in 1952 and attempted to enter what then was the San Diego Open—only to find it was closed to them. Both were denied entry by PGA President Horton Smith. So was former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who hoped to play as an amateur during competition, staged then at the San Diego Country Club. Learning of the slight, famed commentator Walter Winchell—speaking on his Sunday-night radio broadcast—suggested that if Louis could carry a rifle in the U.S. Army (which he had done), he certainly should be qualified to carry a golf club in San Diego.

Louis was admitted to the field. Spiller and Rhodes weren’t. But a week later they were given sponsors’ exemptions and allowed to play at Phoenix. Thus, a crack in bigotry had occurred at San Diego’s inaugural event. It generally is believed that Joe Louis was the first African-American to participate in a PGA event.

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