By Dave Schwab and Robert Lane
Two thousand and eight marks the 40th straight year that the PGA Tour will grace La Jolla's oceanside Torrey Pines Golf Course.
The 17th annual Buick Invitational will be held Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 24-27, featuring a field of 156 players vying for $5.2 million in prize money: $936,000 going to the victor.
The prestigious golf tournament has come a long way over the years in terms of both prize money and stature. When the tournament first moved to Torrey Pines in 1968, Tom Weiskopf captured the crown, pocketing $30,000 of the $150,000 total purse.
On the surface, this year's Buick Invitational looks very much like those of the recent past. Tiger Woods, the heavily favored reigning champ, makes his season debut. Phil Mikelson and other local favorites will be in attendance, and the course has been prepared. But there is a major difference this year. That "major" is the U.S. Open.
The non-profit group "Friends of Torrey Pines" had the vision of transforming the South Course into a U.S. Open site. That vision was realized in 2002 when the city agreed to a lease with the United States Golf Association to host their flagship tournament here. The agreement included a rental fee of $500,000 and merchandising rights, as well as $700,000 for public safety and further renovations to the course.
The U.S. Open will be held this June, but its effect on the annual Buick tournament and the site has been anything but minor. The new parking lot is probably the first thing you notice upon arrival. The uneven cracked pavement has been replaced with an ergonomic, well-designed parking area. As you enter the facility, the landscaping and gardens are in full bloom. The clubhouse, which has had its share of criticism, has been refreshed with paint, and a clock tower donated by Rolex has been placed between the two practice putting greens.
You can bet that the clock tower sporting the Torrey Pines name will see plenty of television time during both events. The Buick will be the first PGA tournament of the year to be broadcast by network television. Its date falls during the week between the NFL's championship games and the Super Bowl. With no NFL games on that weekend, the tournament is sure to receive great ratings and bring lots of attention to the course and the city.
Also sure to bring attention is the great field of players expected. Each will play one round on the South and North Courses on Thursday and Friday. After Friday's round, the field will be cut to the lowest 70 scores and ties. The final two rounds will be played on the South Course on Saturday and Sunday.
The tournament has attracted many of golf's greatest champions over the years: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Jose Maria Olazabal, John Daly and Tiger Woods, to name a few.
Last year, Tiger Woods became the first player in Buick Invitational history to capture five tournament titles. He earned a record $936,000 and added to his record amount of $4,793,000 in 10 tournament starts. Wood's two-shot victory of 15-under par 273 was the 55th of his PGA Tour career. Woods also won the Buick Invitational in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2006.