SAN DIEGO – A strong finish by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson made them feel better about their rounds Friday on opposite ends of Torrey Pines, and better about their chances of catching Bill Haas.
Haas , slowly turning into the player everyone thought he would be, made eight birdies on the South Course for a 6-under 66, giving him a two-shot lead over Anthony Kim going into the weekend at the Farmers Insurance Open.
“A nice 36 (holes) on the weekend could turn this into a great week,” Haas said.
It’s shaping up to be quite a show.
Mickelson, with his wife mingling in the gallery this week for the first time since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2009, turned an ordinary round into a decent one with back-to-back birdies for a 3-under 69 on the North Course. He was three shots behind along with defending champion Ben Crane, four of Mickelson’s Ryder Cup teammates, and John Daly.
Yes, that John Daly.
Winless since his surprise playoff victory seven years ago at Torrey Pines, Daly overcame a double bogey on the North Course for a 69 and found himself in the hunt for the first time since he slimmed down and started wearing the loudest clothes on tour. Could this be another out-of-nowhere win?
“With me, you don’t know what to expect,” Daly said.
Woods, who has won his last five starts on his jewel along with Pacific, managed to stay in the game. He had a 69 and was five shots behind, but with only 11 players ahead of him.
Woods ran off four straight birdies early in his round and at one point was only three shots out of the lead. But he twice took two shots to get out of bunkers and was as many as eight shots behind until the final half-hour. He laced a 5-iron into 12 feet for birdie on the 16th, made a 20-foot par putt after a plugged lie in the face of a bunker on the 17th, then hit 5-wood from 248 yards over the water and onto the green on the par-5 18th, two-putting for birdie.
“It was a round that easily could have slipped away,” Woods said.
The finish left him optimistic about ending the longest drought of his career. It has been 14 months since his last victory, dating to the Australian Masters in November 2009 just before his Thanksgiving night car accident.
In these pristine conditions, though, everyone was feeling good about their chances.
Kim played alongside Woods and birdied his opening four holes. He was tied for the lead after a tap-in birdie at the 10th, but bogeyed the next hole and finished with seven pars, including a three-putt on the 18th.
“I’m really close,” Kim said. “I know I’ve said it a million times. I’m not going to say it again. I’ve just got to make a couple of birdies and see what happens.”
The lead belongs to Haas, who was at 11-under 133. The son of former PGA Tour player Jay Haas, he was a can’t-miss kid out of Wake Forest who plodded along until winning twice last year. He arrived in San Diego after a playoff loss last week at the Bob Hope Classic.
Jay Haas won this tournament in 1978, so long ago that Gene Littler was a runner-up and the South Course was only 7,021 yards. In the modern era – the South was lengthened to 7,698 yards to host the 2008 U.S. Open – Bill Haas thrived. He ran off four straight birdies around the turn and dropped two shots on par 3s.
Mickelson did his work on what used to be the pitch-and-putt North, where the rough is deeper than ever and the fairways are narrow and at times extremely difficult to hit. Lefty missed several chances until the end of his round.
“To make those last two felt good, and I’m looking forward to the weekend,” he said.
Amy Mickelson, one of the most popular and visible wives on Tour, was basking in the glorious sunshine as she walked with a group of friends and couldn’t go more than 100 yards without some spectator approaching to wish her well. She was at the Masters when her husband won a third green jacket, but just for the last hole. At the Ryder Cup, she mostly rode in a cart.
“It’s been a lot of fun having Amy out here this week,” Mickelson said. “She just looks terrific. After a year-and-a-half, we’re in such a better place, and it’s been a lot of fun having here out here.”
Woods knows how to win around here better than anyone, and he was moving up the leaderboard until he was slowed by a par. From 280 yards in the fairway, his 3-wood to the green could have gone anywhere but to the right – and it went just a little to the right. That left him no shot at the flag, and he missed a 15-foot birdie.
“It cost me a chance to build on what I had,” he said.
Then came his first bogey of the year on the par-3 11th, when he left a shot in the bunker trying to hit a perfect shot. He hit a fat bunker shot on the 14th and stayed in the sand trap, having to make a 6-footer for bogey. Another bunker shot on the 15th caught a ridge and rolled 30 feet away. The finish saved him, especially the 5-wood to the 18th green.
“It’s nice when I’m able to pull off shots like that,” he said. “Because I know it’s in there. It’s just a matter of doing it.”