Created on Saturday, 25 January 2014 Written by DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) — The crowd was by far the largest at Torrey Pines, with eight-time champion Tiger Woods in the middle of the action.
And if the fans could not be seen on this overcast afternoon, they could be heard after shots close to the flag, or putts that found the bottom of the hole.
It was just like old times, with one very big exception.
Woods wasn't the star attraction Friday. He was little more than a spectator.
In his group was Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old Texan who is full of talent, not bluster. He ran off three straight birdies to tie for the lead, knocked in another one on his penultimate hole at the North Course (No. 8) to take the outright lead and left Woods in his wake.
"The kid's got talent," Woods said.
Spieth had a 9-under 63, giving him a one-shot lead over Stewart Cink going into the weekend of the Farmers Insurance Open.
Woods had a 71 on the North, which played about 4½ strokes easier than the South Course, and thus was not a particularly good score. He wasn't that bad, but off enough to get into some deep patches of rough that kept him from getting close and having reasonable birdie chances. Woods was nine shots behind.
Cink ripped a 3-wood from 280 yards onto the green at the par-5 ninth on the tough South Course for a two-putt birdie and a hard-earned 71.
"I'm looking forward to playing with Jordan," Cink said. "I've never seen him hit a ball, so that will be fun."
This whole PGA Tour thing has been a blast for Spieth, especially considering where he was a year ago.
Spieth made his pro debut at Torrey Pines last year, and even though he missed the cut, the experience was such that he remembers more of every shot from his opening round on the North than any other tournament he played last year.
Even the start of his pro career is comical in retrospect. Spieth, even though he was low amateur at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club the year before, had to go through pre-qualifying just to get into the Monday qualifier. He didn't make it, and then was given a sponsor exemption. And then he was gone by the weekend.
The rest of the year turned out OK. With no status on any tour, he earned temporary membership (the big boost was a runner-up finish in Puerto Rico), secured his card for the next season, won the John Deere Classic for instant membership, was picked for the Presidents Cup team and finished No. 7 in the FedEx Cup.
"It seems like three or four years ago, it really does with all of last year, what it encompassed," he said.
So long ago that a pairing with Woods — the defending champion, unofficial king of Torrey Pines, supreme commander of his PGA Tour universe and No. 1 player in the world — wasn't really that big of a deal.
"I wasn't intimidated by any means," Spieth said. "I grew up watching him, just like I did with a lot of these veterans out here, so I've idolized him, watched him win majors and whatnot. It's exciting to finally be paired with him."
They played a practice round at the Presidents Cup. They were teammates. Spieth had every reason to feel as if it was just another round.
And it's not the first time he was in the company of a big-time star. In September, he played in the final round with Phil Mickelson at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Spieth is a huge fan of Mickelson, though it didn't show.
The kid shot 62, a round so strong that Mickelson quickly got on the phone with Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples and told him he should pick Spieth. And he did.
Mickelson, meanwhile, had so much soreness in his back that after a 73 on the South to finish eight shots out of the lead, he withdrew from the tournament. Mickelson cited muscle pain in his lower back, saying that he would consult doctors to figure out his next move. He feared that swinging differently to protect his back might get him into bad habits.
Spieth has no such habits at the moment.
This is the third time in eight rounds this year that his name has been atop the leaderboard at the end of the day. He shared the lead after the first and third rounds at Kapalua. Then again, he missed the cut in the Sony Open. And this tournament is only halfway through.
Even so, Woods was impressed, though not surprised.
"He hits it a long way, phenomenal putter. He made a boatload of putts today from the 10- to 20-foot range, and on poa greens, that's not easy to do. He was pouring them in there. He had speed to them, too. That's what you have to do to putt on poa. ... He putted with a lot of confidence."
That used to be Woods, and it still might be. This is his 2014 debut, his first competition in six weeks. And while it's a long shot to win from nine shots back and 49 players ahead of him, Woods was quick to remember that he made the cut with two shots to spare in 1999 and had a 62-65 weekend to win by two at Torrey Pines.
That was before the South Course — where the final two rounds are played — was lengthened ahead of the 2008 U.S. Open (which Woods won). No one has shot better than 67 on the South for two days.