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Farmers Insurance Open golfers are greeted by smaller gathering as Billy Horschel takes first-round lead

Pat Perez tees off to get the 2022 Farmers Insurance Open underway Jan. 26 at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla.
Pat Perez tees off on the South Course to get the 2022 Farmers Insurance Open underway Jan. 26 at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla.
(Kirk Kenney / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Crowds are down as expected at La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Golf Course in COVID comeback combined with the PGA Tour event’s first Wednesday start.

It was quiet at the Farmers Insurance Open last year.

So quiet that at midday during the second round at the clubhouse at La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Golf Course, a marshal at the North Course’s 13th tee box could be heard munching on potato chips. The rustle of the bag seemed to echo across the course and through the canyons.

But this year, fans returned to the Farmers on Jan. 26 after a one-year, pandemic-induced absence.

“Welcome back,” were the first words out of starter Tony Perez’s mouth.

About 100 spectators gathered around the South Course’s first tee as Perez introduced the first group, which happened to include his son, Pat Perez, who striped his tee shot to get the PGA Tour tournament underway.

At the end of the day, Billy Horschel had the first-round lead after shooting a 9-under-par 63 on the North Course.

Horschel, who has been dealing with a neck and shoulder issue, said: “I didn’t know if I was even going to tee it up today when I woke up. Even when I was hitting balls [on the range] I still wasn’t sure whether I was going to tee it up.

“I said, ‘Let’s just go out there, no expectations and just enjoy,’ and I think we did a really good job of that.”

Billy Horschel tees off on the 18th hole of Torrey Pines North during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open.
First-round leader Billy Horschel tees off on the North Course’s 18th hole Jan. 26 in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Horschel’s effort provided a one-shot lead over Michael Thompson. Stephen Jaeger and Kevin Tway were two shots back at 65.

The low score on the more demanding South Course belonged to Jon Rahm, last year’s U.S. Open champion at Torrey Pines who was tied at 66 with three players, including Rickie Fowler.

There may be roars from the crowd come the weekend, but the four-day tournament’s Wednesday debut was decidedly understated. The schedule was moved up a day to avoid a conflict with the National Football League’s conference championship games Sunday, Jan. 30.

The Farmers Insurance Open — La Jolla’s annual pro tournament for PGA Tour golfers — is coming back for another round (actually four rounds) next week at Torrey Pines Golf Course with an unusual Wednesday start Jan. 26.

The gallery around the opening hole swelled to perhaps 300 spectators a half-hour after Perez’s group was gone. That’s sizeable for most groups, but not for one that included local favorite Phil Mickelson, defending Farmers champion Patrick Reed and 2020 winner Marc Leishman.

It’s not uncommon for a couple of thousand of people to be along the rope line when Mickelson begins his round.

An hour later, there were again about 300 spectators when three of the top-ranked players in the world — Rahm, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas — went off No. 1 South.

The morning’s largest ovation came on No. 10 North when Bryson DeChambeau hit a prodigious drive to begin his round.

The Farmers averaged about 150,000 spectators a year pre-pandemic. It won’t approach that this year, given the unprecedented Wednesday start combined with reluctance by some fans to return amid the recent surge of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

There was some sense of normalcy in that no one was asked at the entrance to provide proof of COVID vaccination — or booster — and masks were not required in the open air. A few people chose to wear masks anyway.

“We’re trying to find that right number between big crowds and too big of crowds,” Farmers Insurance Open Chief Executive Marty Gorsich said earlier this week, “to make sure that when people come out here the lines aren’t too long or it’s not so congested that you can’t move around.

“Cart paths are 5 feet wide. If 20,000 more people come, the cart path is still going to be 5 feet wide. We’re looking at that and thinking maybe we back our numbers down slightly and create a little demand and urgency but also ensure we can give a great, consistent experience.”

The crowd began to gather steam as the day unfolded, with a notable gathering in the grandstands at the South’s 18th hole.

Gates open at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, for the second round, will play beginning at 9. Gates open at 9 a.m. for the final two rounds Jan. 28-29, with play beginning at 9:30. For tickets, visit farmersinsuranceopen.com/ticketing. The Golf Channel is providing TV coverage of the first two rounds, and CBS will cover the final two.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.