Daly Steals Some Thunder

We were rightfully excited about the 2011 debuts of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but another big name shared the spotlight in Thursday’s first round of the Farmers Insurance Open…John Daly.

Wild Thing toured Torrey Pines South in 67, matching Mickelson and Fabian Gomez for the low round on the tougher of the two courses, while Woods had a mediocre 69 on the North Course. Daly has been little more than a carnival sideshow since 2005, and at the age of 44 it figures to be too late for a comeback.

Indeed, we shouldn’t be too excited about a good first round. Daly had several of those in 2010, but his weekend play was abysmal. His first-round scoring average last year was 70.65, including three 66s (one of them at the British Open). His final-round scoring average was 73.70, including a 78, an 81, and an 82. That’s how he finished 193rd on the money list despite making 14 of 20 cuts.

That money standing leaves Daly dependent on getting sponsors’ exemptions to get into tournaments. As a gate attraction, he often gets them. But as time marches on, more and more will start passing on Daly, as next week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open did—unless he produces more rounds like he did on Thursday.

(Incidentally, Daly used some of his interview time on Thursday to complain about not getting exemptions to Phoenix and last week’s Bob Hope–and to say that he’ll never play those tournaments again. Well, John, when you keep having to rely on sponsor exemptions year after year, sooner or later they are going to get tired of giving them to you, especially since there are other worthy candidates. Then again, this is a guy who once complained about not getting a special invitation to the Masters when he didn’t qualify by the tournament’s criteria. In other words, a guy with a sense of entitlement.)

Torrey Pines was the scene of Daly’s last victory in 2004, but also of his declaration a year ago that he was “done” after shooting 79-71 to miss the cut. Thursday’s round was more like the former, as he had nine birdie putts of 10 feet or less, converting seven of them.

Mickelson matched Daly’s 67. While he had it inside 10 feet only six times, five of those were from 5 feet or less. He made all of those, plus a 9-footer and a 23-footer to more than offset two bogeys. It started out as a Lawrence of Arabia type of round, as Lefty visited five bunkers on the first eight holes (three fairway, two greenside) but he survived those holes in 1-under.

While there are plenty of questions about Woods after his winless 2010, Mickelson is facing some scrutiny, too. The glow of his Masters victory did not serve to completely brighten a year that ended with only one top-10 (a backdoor T8th) in his last eight starts. With a major championship in his pocket and Woods out of the frame, Mickelson had a golden opportunity for his first Player of the Year award but let it slip away. Now he’s 40 years old and last year was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, though he says medication has taken care of that.

Some players, like Vijay Singh and Kenny Perry, have thrived in their 40s. Then again, others have gone into decline after hitting the big four-oh. We still don’t know which way Mickelson is headed.

For Woods, this is the third straight year he has had a highly anticipated debut. In 2009, the WGC-Accenture Match Play marked his return from an eight-and-a-half month absence due to knee surgery. In 2010, the Masters marked his return from a four-and-a-half month absence due to scandal. While he hasn’t been away so long this time, there’s plenty of curiosity about how he will rebound from the first winless year of his career.

Woods’ opening round didn’t tell us a lot. It was solid on the scorecard, with no bogeys, but somewhat wild on the course, as he only hit five of 14 fairways. The errant driving hurt him on the par 5s, which are normally the North Course’s weakest link. He drove it into the rough on all four, didn’t hit any of them in two shots, and walked away with four pars.

Woods is tied for 22nd, but realistically worse than that since the North Course is generally two strokes easier. On Friday, Woods heads to the South Course for his first official round there since winning the 2008 U.S. Open. It won’t have quite the drama of his 2008 playoff with Rocco Mediate (though he does have Mediate as a playing partner), but it will be an important round in telling us about the state of Tiger’s game.

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