For the first time in six years, the Buick Invitational has the prime spot on the West Coast schedule.
It's the week after the Super Bowl, a quiet time in the world of sports, before pitchers and catchers report, the green flag drops at Daytona, before March turns mad. This is the week for snowbound folks to change the channel to the PGA Tour and witness the spectacular combination of blue surf and green turf.
What they won't see is another familiar sight at Torrey Pines -- Tiger Woods.
Woods has been winning at Torrey Pines since he was a teenager, and he practically owns the public course along the cliffs of La Jolla. He has won the Buick Invitational six times, including the last four in a row, and saved his biggest impression for last summer when he won an epic U.S. Open by playing 91 holes on one good leg and beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff.
"We miss our defending champion," said Larry Peck, the Buick-Pontiac promotions manager. Just his luck, the tournament can't even sell the other half of the U.S. Open duel because Mediate withdrew on Monday.
Golf is off to a solid start this year, even if the audience was small.
Major champions won the first two tournaments of the year, with Geoff Ogilvy going wire-to-wire to win by six shots at Kapalua, and Zach Johnson winning in Honolulu. The birdies returned to the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, where Pat Perez clinched his first PGA Tour victory with an eagle. Then came 48-year-old Kenny Perry, winning a playoff outside Phoenix for his fourth victory in 15 starts.
But even some golf fans don't pay attention until Woods shows up.
The Buick Invitational traditionally has the highest TV ratings on the West Coast because that's where Woods has made his debut the last three years, and it didn't hurt that he won.
"I think that this tournament certainly misses his presence," Phil Mickelson said. "He's been such a mainstay of this event. He's played so well here. Plus, he had just won the U.S. Open here, as well as last year's tournament. I miss the opportunity to compete against him. We all do. And we hope that he gets back out soon."
Woods has not hit a meaningful shot since tapping in for par on the seventh hole at Torrey last June to beat Mediate on the 19th hole of the Monday playoff. He had season-ending surgery on his left knee a week later, and while he is in full practice mode in Florida, he still is not ready to return. The first order of business is the birth of his next child, expected as early as next week.
Someone pointed out to Mickelson that he was the only past champion at Torrey Pines this decade (2000, 2001) who is playing this year, a statistic skewed by Woods winning five of them.
"I didn't realize that," Mickelson said. "I wasn't really reading through the fine print in the program."
Along with Woods, also missing is the suspended John Daly (2004) and Jose Maria Olazabal (2002), who is recovering from rheumatism and played last week in Dubai for the first time in nearly two months.
The Buick Invitational isn't left with chopped liver. Mickelson is a three-time winner at Torrey Pines and a San Diego native. Making his PGA Tour debut this week is Padraig Harrington, the player of the year in 2008 with victories in the British Open and PGA Championship. Even so, they are the only two players from the top 10 in the world ranking.
Woods' absence was noticeable at Firestone, too, because he also has won six times there without ever finishing out of the top 10. But that comes late in the year, when the majors are nearly over. Torrey Pines offers optimism, and with Woods nowhere to be found except the cover of the program, it is a reminder of somber times.
Last week alone, the PGA Tour lost its title sponsor in Milwaukee and filed a lawsuit against Ginn for breaking its contract as the title sponsor of a Champions Tour event. Some 20 title sponsors are up for renewal after 2010, a negotiating process that will begin this summer, if not sooner.
No one feels the pinch quite like Buick.
Peck spoke in multiple capacities when he spoke of how much he misses Woods. Not only is the Buick Invitational missing its star attraction and four-time defending champion, Woods agreed last year to end his nine-year endorsement with Buick and cash-strapped GM.
Torrey Pines looks beautiful as ever, with sunshine filling an endless sky and weather that feels more like summer than it did during the U.S. Open. But clouds are gathering.
"From an advertising and promotion standpoint, our view is we still need to advertise, now more than ever," Peck said. "But based on the whole economic situation, we're trimming back everywhere we can."
The corporate box on the 18th is smaller, and Buick won't be serving alcohol to contain costs. It didn't bring out some of its large signage, which was expensive to ship from Michigan. The lawn area in front of the lodge, which used to be a showroom of sorts with the latest vehicles, is now an outdoor restaurant.
"It won't make a huge difference on TV," Peck said.
The same can't be said for Woods not being at Torrey Pines. He hasn't played in more than seven months, but considering his history at Torrey, his absence has not been as palpable as it is now.
And if that's not enough, it's supposed to rain this weekend.