Mickelson Returns Home for Buick Invitational

By Tom LaMarre, Contributor

SAN DIEGO --People come from near and far to visit the World Famous San Diego Zoo, Sea World and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

In keeping with the animal theme, there are Bear tracks on the Century Club Walk of Fame in San Diego.

Jack Nicklaus, who won what was then the Andy Williams San Diego Open in 1969, is the latest inductee into the Walk of Fame, which honors key figures in the PGA Tour event that has been held in this border town for 50 years.

The Buick Invitational will be played this year on Feb. 7-10 at Torrey Pines Golf Club in La Jolla.

"I am humbled just by being considered for this great award," said Nicklaus, who is considered by most golf historians to be the greatest player in the history of the game. "I have many great memories of playing at Torrey Pines and it's remarkable how this tournament has grown in stature over the years.

"San Diego has built a great tournament and should be very proud. The city of San Diego supported the PGA Tour in the early days and though I haven't played there in years, I've seen the huge galleries on television embrace the event."

Nicklaus defeated hometown favorite Gene Littler by one stroke in 1969, the year after the tournament moved to Torrey Pines from Stardust Country Club in San Diego.

The Golden Bear finished one stroke behind champion Johnny Miller in the 1982 Wickes-Andy Williams San Diego Open and finished fifth in 1968, third in 1970 and third in 1971.

"It was a very special day in 1969 when I won the Andy Williams San Diego Open because Barbara brought the kids out to a tournament for the first time and I happened to win it," Nicklaus recalled.

Nicklaus joins two-time winners Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, and native San Diegans Littler, Billy Casper and Craig Stadler, on the Century Club Walk of Fame.

Other honorees are longtime host Williams and Steve Horrell, a founding member of the Century Club.

Another native of San Diego who will be on the Walk of Fame someday is Phil Mickelson, two-time defending champion of the Buick Invitational. He is the only three-time winner of the event, having also prevailed in 1993.

"My dreams started here in San Diego," said Mickelson, a graduate of University High who recently moved back to his hometown from Scottsdale, Ariz. "My dad would take me out of school on Thursday and Friday, when the crowds were smaller, to watch the pros.

"I knew right then I needed to be inside the ropes. To be able to come back as a player is a fulfillment of my dreams. To be able to win twice in a row and three times overall is just unbelievable."

Mickelson won by four strokes over Dave Rummells in 1993 and by four over Tiger Woods and Shigeki Maruyama in 2000, before defeating Davis Love III and Frank Lickliter in a playoff last year.

Those victories came on the South Course at Torrey Pines, which has been retooled and lengthened to more than 7,600 yards in an attempt by the Century Club to land a U.S. Open or PGA Championship.

Try to book a tee time before or after the tournament on the North or South courses at Torrey Pines, which has been one of the finest municipal facilities in the country since the William F. Bell-designed layouts opened in 1957.

Both courses are used during the first two rounds of the tournament, but only the South on the weekend. The North is a bit more scenic but the South has always been more difficult and even more so with the retooling of the course.

"The way the course is set up now, I think it has a great shot to host a major," Mickelson said. "I would benefit San Diego so much to host such an event and the city has seemed to embrace big-time events such as the Super Bowl. If the USGA came in here (to host a U.S. Open), they would lengthen the rough, get the greens to 13 or 14 on the stimp-meter, and I think even par would be a good score.

"The biggest change to the course is on the greens. I'll have to practice an awful lot more on them because they are totally different. I'll have to forget everything I learned about them over the years and learn them over from scratch. Anything you knew about them previously is out the window."

According to Mickelson, the biggest change on the course is on the ninth hole, a par five that has been lengthened from 536 yards to a colossal 613.

What was a birdie hole in the past has become one of the longest holes on the PGA Tour.

"The drive has become so difficult," Mickelson said. "In the past, you had 25 or 30 yards of fairway to hit in the landing area. Now, because of the slope on the fairway, that has been cut in half.

"That will make it much more difficult if not nearly impossible to get there in two, let alone to make par. There are severe penalties."

Mickelson also pointed out two prodigious par fours: No. 14, which has been lengthened from 398 yards to 435, and No. 15, which grew from 389 yards to 477.

No. 18, one of the renown finishing holes in golf because of Devlin's Billabong, the lake that guards the green, has been lengthened from 498 yards to 571 but still is capable of yielding a finishing birdie, according to Mickelson.

"It still rates as one of the great par fives, I think," Mickeson said. "Even though it's 70 yards longer, you can still reach the green in two but you have to deal with the water probably more than before.

"It's always been a terrific risk-reward finishing hole."

Just ask Bruce Devlin, who ran afoul in the lake and took a 10 on No. 18 in the final round of the 1975 tournament while challenging for the lead.

There are several exceptional places to stay and play nearby, including Rancho Bernardo Inn and Country Club, the Doubletree Carmel Highland Resort, Morgan Run Resort and Club, Carlton Oaks Country Club and Lodge, and up the road a piece is the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, which hosts the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship on Feb. 20-24.

One of the nation's top golf destinations, the San Diego area also offers quality public golf at Coronado Golf Club, Balboa Park Golf Club and Cottonwood at Rancho San Diego Golf Club in El Cajon.

The San Diego Open debuted on the PGA Tour in 1952 and the tournament, which has had numerous name changes, has been held every year except 1958.

The Century Club of San Diego is in its 40th year of organizing the tournament, which is being played at Torrey Pines for the 35th consecutive year.

You can stay close by at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines Hotel, the Hyatt Regency La Jolla or the La Jolla Marriott. Other quality hotels are located in Hotel Circle, Mission Bay and San Diego's revitalized downtown.

Treat yourself to a bit of history and book a room at the 113-year-old Hotel Del Coronado, a National Historical Monument on Coronado Island. Marilyn Monroe, Charles Lindbergh, Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra have been on the guest list of the "Hotel Del," and they say the ghost of Kate Morgan still resides there.

There are also a wide range of dining experiences in the San Diego, from the venerable Croce's in the Gaslamp Quarter to Anthony's Star of the Sea. There's also Buster's Beach House in Seaport Village, and if you into Mexican food, head for Casa Guadalajara in Old Town.

Near Torrey Pines in La Jolla are the Crab Catcher, George's at the Cove, Marrakesh, Elario's Bistro and Sky Lounge, and the Top o' the Cove.

When your fill of the food, animals and the golf, you can discover one of Southern California's best-kept secrets: The best time to go to the beach is in Winter, especially if you catch one of those pristine days, because you don't have to fight the thundering herds.

Tom LaMarre, Contributor

Tom LaMarre has been a sportswriter and copy editor in California for parts of five decades, including 15 years with the Oakland Tribune and 22 with the Los Angeles Times.

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