By BERNIE WILSON
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Rory McIlroy is playing the Farmers Insurance Open for just the third time, looking for his first tour victory since 2019 while getting a feel for the course that will host the U.S. Open in June.
With seven-time winner Tiger Woods missing one of his favorite tournaments due to his fifth back surgery, McIlroy and former Farmers winners Jon Rahm, Marc Leishman and Jason Day top the field at Torrey Pines.
McIlroy finished third last year behind Leishman and Rahm, and tied for fifth with Rahm and Day in 2019.
“I didn’t really start playing this event until a little later on in my career, but it’s been a good venue for me,” the 31-year-old McIlroy said Wednesday. “Even going back to the Junior World days, whatever that is now, 20 years ago.
“It’s good to be back. Also, with obviously playing this tournament, but looking ahead to June and the U.S. Open here as well, it will be nice to at least have it fresh in the memory for then, too.”
McIlroy said he thought about playing nine holes on the North Course on Wednesday but ended up playing 18 on the tougher South Course. He’ll play the South Course in the opening round Thursday and then play the North Course blind on Friday. The weekend rounds will be on the South Course.
McIlroy hasn’t won since beating San Diego native Xander Schauffele in a playoff in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai in November 2019.
McIlroy failed to hold his third-round lead in the Abu Dhabi Championship last weekend and finished third after being overtaken by Englishman Tyrrell Hatton.
The U.S. Open returns to Torrey Pines for the first time since 2008, when Woods beat Rocco Mediate on the first hole of sudden-death following an 18-hole playoff.
McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional for his first major, said Torrey Pines is “a wonderful layout for a major championship. I think it stands up to have a U.S. Open here. It stands up to basically the most elite level of golf that we play, the toughest test we face all year for the most part.
“I think three competitive rounds on the South Course this week, it will be fresh in my memory when it comes around to June and the U.S. Open’s on,” he said. “Obviously the course is going to play much differently in June. I would expect the rough to be up a little bit more and the greens to be a little bit firmer, a little more premium on accuracy that week than maybe there is this week, but it’s not as if you’re not trying to hit the fairways this week either.
“If I can go out and play well and shoot three good scores on the South this week, it will give me some confidence going into June.”
Leishman won last year, closing with a 7-under 65 to beat Rahm by a stroke.
“Yeah, it was a special day,” the Australian said. “I’ve been in that position a couple of times before, one in particular I remember, I think I was leading by 1 or 2, playing the seventh hole and after that kind of fell away. You learn from those sort of things. I was just wanting to take all my experiences, put them in my basket, I guess, and use them all that day.
“Was lucky enough to have some good golf, make some putts and came out on top. So it was a really fun day that I’ll remember forever.”
Leishman will be making his 13th start in this tournament. He first played Torrey Pines during the Junior Worlds in 2001.
He knows Torrey Pines will play differently for the Open than it will for the Farmers.
“The good thing about knowing this course as well as I do is around the greens,” he said. “The breaks don’t change on the greens. They have the greens quick for this tournament as they will for the U.S. Open. … I think in that respect that’s what I’m going to take out of this week as far as preparation goes for the U.S. Open, just really try and chart the greens maybe more than I have in the past and be ready to make those putts.”
DIVOTS: Woods, who typically starts his year at Torrey Pines when healthy, had back surgery Dec. 23 and is out for at least another month. … Jordan Spieth and Louis Oosthuizen are making their first starts of the year. … Spieth is trying to end a drought that dates to the 2017 British Open. … Justin Rose, who won at Torrey two years ago, is playing in Dubai this week. … Phil Mickelson is playing his hometown event after missing the cut in The American Express last week. This is the 20-year anniversary of Mickelson winning the tournament in a playoff with a double bogey. … Mickelson will be paired with Schauffele and Spieth, playing the North on Thursday and the South on Friday.