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Farmers Insurance Open tees it up in La Jolla, without spectators

Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson is committed to play in the Farmers Insurance Open Jan. 28-31 in La Jolla.
Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson is committed to play in the Farmers Insurance Open Jan. 28-31 at Torrey Pines Golf Course. He has won the La Jolla tournament three times.
(Getty Images)

At its core, the Farmers Insurance Open is a televised event that highlights many of the strongest golfers in the game. So for the vast majority of viewers, not much will change this week when the annual pro tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla runs without spectators onsite as a precaution because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event, being held Jan. 28-31, will be broadcast on the Golf Channel starting at noon Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. It also will be broadcast on CBS starting at noon Saturday and Sunday. The tournament is a part of the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing.

Marty Gorsich, chief executive of the Farmers Insurance Open and the Century Club of San Diego — the nonprofit that serves as the host organization for the event — compared the tournament’s operation this year to how Major League Baseball continued its games without fans in the stands last season.

“Everything inside the lines is still the same,” he said. “Outside the lines, everything has changed. So there won’t be suites and stands, and the energy that surrounds the event won’t be there, but we still have the best golfers and their caddies coming.”

Marty Gorsich, CEO of the Farmers Insurance Open, is pictured on the south course at Torrey Pines in January 2020.
Marty Gorsich, chief executive of the Farmers Insurance Open, is pictured on the south course at Torrey Pines in January 2020.
(File)

The decision to limit in-person attendance to players, caddies and assistants came from working with San Diego County on a safety plan.

“We still had to have players and caddies and their volunteers to have the event, so they were deemed essential,” Gorsich said. “But that is still a fairly high number of people, so the county determined that guests and fans are not essential and they would not approve our event if it had fans. But the players are used to playing every week with safety protocols; this is their job. This is what they do. I feel great about the players we have.”

Rory McIlroy plays Torrey Pines' south course during a practice round for the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open.
Rory McIlroy plays Torrey Pines’ south course during a practice round for the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open. McIlroy also is set to play in this year’s tournament.
(File)

Players who have committed include Jason Day (2015 PGA Championship, 2015 and ’18 Farmers Insurance Open), Jason Dufner (2013 PGA Championship), Brooks Koepka (2017 and ’18 U.S. Open, 2018 and ’19 PGA Championship), Marc Leishman (2020 Farmers Insurance Open), Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 and ’14 PGA Championship, 2014 The Open Championship), Phil Mickelson (2004, 2006 and 2010 Masters, 2005 PGA Championship, 2013 The Open Championship, 1993, 2000 and 2001 Farmers Insurance Open), Francesco Molinari (2018 The Open Championship), Louis Oosthuizen (2010 The Open Championship), Patrick Reed (2018 Masters), Adam Scott (2013 Masters), Jordan Spieth (2015 Masters, 2015 U.S. Open, 2017 The Open Championship), Bubba Watson (2012 and ’14 Masters, 2011 Farmers Insurance Open) and Gary Woodland (2019 U.S. Open).

Two-time Farmers Insurance Open winner Jason Day is scheduled to play in this week's renewal in La Jolla.
(Getty Images)

A full list of players is at farmersinsuranceopen.com.

In addition to the players — eight of whom have ties to San Diego — the event showcases the city itself.

“One thing people forget is, this is the only thing on national and international television that shows our city off,” Gorsich said. “So beyond the golf aspect, there is a big element of civic pride associated with this event.”

That opportunity for a showcase may ease the sting of losing potential business as a result of the lack of spectators. The city of San Diego said last year that the tournament typically generates $30 million in economic activity for the city.

Bill Gross, general manager of The Lodge at Torrey Pines, which overlooks the golf course, said pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings have caused the resort to cancel banquets and other events centered around the tournament.

“Additionally, the lack of spectators greatly impacts food and beverage sales,” he said. “Our restaurant, The Grill at Torrey Pines, is a favorite among tournament attendees.”

“Sadly, this is one more event that is a victim of COVID,” said La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director Jodi Rudick. “However, the TV coverage is incredible and one of the best marketing tools La Jolla could ever ask for. Nothing can take away from the long-term value of this type of exposure. With the U.S. Open Championship coming to Torrey Pines in June, we optimistically look forward to audiences returning to the [PGA] Tour by this time.”

La Valencia Hotel marketing manager Annalise Dewhurst agreed that the Farmers Insurance Open creates “extra buzz” in La Jolla. “We don’t typically see a significant increase in bookings because of the event. I will say that during a typical year ... we would see an increase in foot traffic to our restaurants as a result,” she said.

Gorsich said the tournament is easy to watch on television for those who may not be diehard golf fans.

“Golf has a degree of intimidation around it, but once you give it a try and find it’s ... easy to follow, you see that it’s easy to enjoy,” he said. “With the pandemic, because golf is played outside and played at a distance, we are seeing an uptick in people that are taking to the courses and giving it a try. Golf is growing, and I think that will lead to that intimidation going away. You can be a diehard golf fan and watch one way or be a new golf fan and look for people you know. There are a lot of ways to enjoy it.”

The event also partners with six local charities to encourage awareness and donations through its fundraising arm, Champions for Youth.

This year, the six charities are Just in Time for Foster Youth, New Haven Youth and Family Services, San Diego Youth Services, Promises2Kids, Support the Enlisted Project and Words Alive. Depending on the amount of money raised and the number of donors for each charity, organizations receive additional funds from the Farmers Cares Bonus Pool, according to the tournament website. The 2021 Farmers Cares Bonus Pool is $285,000.

Last year, organizations earned a 45 percent median return on donation, meaning that for every $1 donated, the charities received $1.45.

“Our purpose as a 501(c)3 is not to host a golf tournament but to help San Diego,” Gorsich said. “We are proud of our civic impacts.” ◆