Torrey Pines ready for Invitational

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.

Torrey south is known as one of the hardest courses on the PGA schedule, and the Open is traditionally the hardest test of golf for the year. It should be a dangerous combination for participants in either event.

Additional renovations are in the works for June, but the golf course site is ready for the 17th running year of the Buick Invitational.

The USGA has been getting Torrey Pines South Course ready for the major for nearly a year. It’s been a huge undertaking, noted Mark Woodward, Torrey Pines golf operations manager. “We’ve done quite a bit,” he said, “added some championship tees and enlarged a few others, added needed bunkers, moved fairways closer to the ocean, moved greens from left to right. We’ve leveled the landing zones on a number of holes, made them more receptive for balls to hit on.”

Other major upgrades to the courses have involved changes to the playing surface. Said Woodward: “We’ve converted all the grass on the greens from bent grass to Poa Annua, an annual bluegrass giving us the ability to manage smoothness and firmness.”

Woodward has also planted 100 percent of the fairways at Torrey Pines with Kikuyu grass. “We’ve planted one million square feet of Kikuya grass with sod in the last 15 to 18 months,” he said,. “We’ve also trimmed a lot of trees and moved 30 Torrey Pines with a 100 percent success rate.”

Improving the course for tournament play has been well worth the effort. “We’ve raised the bar for everyday play,” concluded Woodward. “Because of all the work we’ve done getting ready for these events, players will get the benefit of having a really nice course for a long time.”

Charity fund-raising is also a big - and growing - part of the Buick Invitational each year which is sponsored by General Motors Buick division. Since 1992, The Buick Invitational in La Jolla has generated more than $12 million for local charities in the San Diego area, including a record $2.3 million in 2007. Several area charities benefited from proceeds including the San Diego County Junior Golf Association, Boys and Girls Clubs, Pro Kids Golf Academy, The Monarch School and other community and university golf programs.

“We’ve been a premiere event on the PGA tour for years,” pointed out Tom Wilson, executive director of the Century Club, a volunteer organization that manages and organizes the Invitational every year.

Wilson said the tournament’s charity component for schools generated about $600,000 last year. This year, the tournament is hosting a military appreciation luncheon, as well as a military appreciation pavilion on the golf course for active duty personnel.

Wilson noted the tournament generated $100,000 for charities when he first got involved with it 16 years ago. “These last two years, we’ve given $2 million a year away,” he pointed out. “That’s been the most heartwarming part of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

What makes the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines so special? “The venue,” answered Wilson, “the players that come year in and year out We’ve been very fortunate to have Tiger play the last 10 years. Also the weather is awesome. With most of the country socked in with snow and cold, we’re showcasing San Diego’s beaches, its ocean and cliffside Torrey Pines Golf Course. That truly makes it special.”