Locals Drive the Buick
By Tom Cushman
PHIL MICKELSON’S FIRST EXPERIENCE INSIDE THE ROPES at the tournament now known as the Buick Invitational occurred in 1985. At 14—and not yet ready to compete with prime-time players —Mickelson carried the scoreboard for the threesome of Steve Pate, Chris Perry and Jeff Coston.
“I was in awe,” Mickelson says.
Awe is an expression since adopted by those who follow Mickelson’s annual tours of the Torrey Pines twin courses during tournament week. The native San Diegan first joined the field in 1988—playing a practice round with his boyhood idol, Seve Ballesteros—and then failed to make the cut. Five years later, Mickelson shaved 13 strokes from par over the final 54 holes and, to the delight of a hometown gallery, became a PGA Tour winner for the first time.
With Tiger Woods attempting to capture a seventh consecutive PGA event at the 2000 Buick, Mickelson rolled in birdie putts on four of the last six holes to dissolve a tie with Woods and win by four shots.
Following a playoff with Davis Love III and Frank Lickliter a year later, Mickelson would become the local tournament’s only three-time champion, with a final stroke of dubious distinction. After Love eliminated himself with a bogey on the second extra hole (the South Course’s 16th), Mickelson swatted his tee shot into a canyon bordering the 17th fairway. With victory beckoning, Lickliter contributed a sympathetic stroke, his drive tracking Mickelson’s into the forest below. When Lickliter eventually three-putted for a triple bogey, Mickelson became the first golfer to capture a PGA playoff with a final-hole double bogey.
“It’s a win no matter how you do it, and to do it here is special,” Phil says. “This is where I would come with my father when I was young—and stand outside the ropes, looking in, dreaming of the day I could compete on the tour. Winning this tournament always is a realization of those dreams.”
Given the stature of venue and tournament, the consistency of success by participants with San Diego pedigrees is rather remarkable. A migrant in its early days, the tournament had been played on a half-dozen courses before Torrey Pines hosted for the first time in 1968 and became a permanent site. As testimony to its regard at the highest of golf levels, the reshaped Torrey South course will host the 2008 U.S. Open. And after years of playing musical sponsors, the invitational’s 13-year union with Buick has brought stability. Many now consider it the most attractive of the western stops.
The trophy list includes magical names. Arnold Palmer (twice), Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson (twice), Johnny Miller, Fuzzy Zoeller, Davis Love, Tiger Woods and José Maria Olazabal all have won here. But so have Gene Littler, Billy Casper, Craig Stadler, Scott Simpson and, of course, Mickelson, all of whom are San Diego–bred.
Littler was the first local champion, his victory coming during the tournament’s third year (1954), while he still was an amateur. Following a week when the 23-year-old Littler recorded only four bogeys (three on a rainy final day), he saw the $2,400 first-place check handed to touring pro Dutch Harrison. The amateur winner’s prize was a tea set presented by Hollywood bathing beauty Esther Williams. “Many times after that, I asked Dutch if he still had his money, because I still had the tea set,” Littler said during an interview years later. “I still do.”
In 1965, Littler added an historical footnote to tournament history. During the Wednesday pro-am at Stardust Country Club, he entered his front-nine score of 35 in the slot for the ninth hole, leaving him with a 101 total after the round was completed. The following day, Littler shot a tournament-record 62, but Wes Ellis emerged as the eventual winner after a playoff with Billy Casper.
After complaining the next year about his struggle with the short stick (“I wish they could find some way to take putting out of this game; from 10 feet I’m lucky to make one out of 10”), Casper needed only 25 putts during a Sunday 64 that delivered the title.
FORMER MASTERS CHAMPION Craig Stadler won in 1994, a triumph of justice when one considers the nature of his “almostwin” seven years earlier. The leader for much of that 1987 Sunday, Stadler walked off the 18th green in second place at 18-underpar —and into the custody of a PGA official. Following a brief discussion, off they went to the tournament office.
There, Stadler learned of an indiscretion the previous afternoon, and its consequences. On a day wet enough to suit the Stadler nickname of “Walrus,” Craig found himself forced to punch a ball from under a tree. Not wanting to soil his trousers, he placed a towel on the ground and knelt down.
When a televised replay reached Sunday’s audience, several alert viewers phoned the PGA to ask if the towel couldn’t be construed as “building a stance.” As it turned out, that very year the USGA had added a towel clause to its endless array of mystifying rules. Stadler was disqualified, forced to forfeit the $37,333 second- place money and, understandably, left the course trailing enough steam to open a dry-cleaning establishment. Scott Simpson was the last local other than Mickelson to win here, his victory coming 10 years after he’d wrung a U.S. Open championship from the contoured treachery of San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Simpson’s caddy for his victory was former Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries, and Simpson’s galleries were crowded with familiar faces. “It’s still hard to believe that this homeboy really did win the tournament of his dreams,” Simpson said.
Other former and current San Diego residents also have done well. Lennie Clements led into the final round of the 1996 tournament before Davis Love replaced him at the top of the leaderboard. Kevin Stadler, son of Craig (and in the field on a sponsor’s exemption), was first-round leader after a 64 last year. San Diegan Chris Riley eventually would lose that tournament in a playoff with John Daly and Luke Donald (Daly prevailed).
Poway resident Dennis Paulson has contended. Former San Diego State University student Greg Twiggs won in 1989, a year after saying if he didn’t make it through the PGA’s qualifying school, he’d give up golf and “go drive a beer truck for a living.”
“Having players who are connected locally is very important to the tournament,” says Tom Wilson, its executive director since 1992. “Fans like to follow people they may know, or feel like they know. One reason for our success has been the loyalty of some of these guys.”
No one has made as many appearances as Billy Casper, whose total is 31. Littler competed 29 times, Craig Stadler’s total is 27 and Scott Simpson’s, 25. “I anticipate some of the area’s younger players being factors down the line,” Wilson says. “A guy like Pat Perez—I think he’ll be a force over the years.”
In 1995, Craig Stadler returned to the site of his infamous towel incident. The tree under which he’d knelt to his eventual dismay eight years earlier had become diseased and was to be removed. Offered the opportunity to fell the offending perennial, Stadler accepted. A photograph of the ensuing execution was offered that night by the ESPN television network and saluted as its “Shot of the Day.”