Career Builder Challenge: Zach Johnson the value after eye-catching opener

Zach Johnson – one of two Punter’s picks in California
Zach Johnson – one of two Punter’s picks in California

The PGA Tour moves on to California this week for the start of the West Coast Swing so read Steve's in-depth preview of the Career Builder Challenge here...

"Rain will irritate the field for most of the week, temperatures will be far cooler than the norm and we’ll even get a bit of wind so I fancy it could be a week for a wily old patient pro, so step forward Zach Johnson."

Tournament History

After two weeks in Hawaii, the PGA Tour moves on to California for the Career Builder Challenge - the first of five events that make up the traditional West Coast Swing.

The Career Builder Challenge began life in 1960 as the Palm Springs Desert Golf Challenge - a five-round pro-am won by Arnold Palmer. Between 1965 and 2012 it was known as the Bob Hope Classic before Humana took over sponsorship and revived its fortunes.

The tournament had been failing to attract quality fields and it seemed the five round format had much to do with its demise. It was reduced to the conventional four rounds in 2012 and it's been thriving ever since.

The tournament is a Pro-Am staged over three courses (listed below) in rotation over the first three days with the host course, the PGA West TPC Stadium Course, staging the final round and that's the best time to watch. With amateurs in attendance, the first three days are fairly slow and the coverage can be a bit dull but the pro-am aspect of the event finishes on Saturday and the professionals are left alone to fight for the title on Sunday.


Venue

The Stadium Course, La Quinta, California


Course Details

PGA West (TPC Stadium Course), par 72, 7,300 yards -Stroke Index in 2016 - 70.82
PGA West (Tournament Course), par 72, 7,204 yards -Stroke Index in 2016 - 68.94
La Quinta Country Club, par 72, 7,060 yards -Stroke Index in 2016 - 69.15

The Pete Dye-designed PGA West Stadium Course was used for the first time 12 months ago and as demonstrated by the averages, is the hardest of the three.

For more on the three courses, please see this page on the PGA Tour website.

Weather Forecast


TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 20:00 on Thursday


Last Five Winners

2016 - Jason Dufner -25
2015 - Bill Haas -22
2014 - Patrick Reed -28
2013 - Brian Gay -25 (Playoff)
2012 - Mark Wilson -24


What Will it Take to Win the Career Builder Challenge?

All three courses are set up fairly generously, so as not to embarrass the amateurs, and as a result Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy are not stats to get hung up on. This is basically a low scoring birdie-fest and it's a question of who holes the most putts.

Jason Dufner made 30 birdies last year on his way to the title, as did the 2014 winner, Patrick Reed. The winner nearly always makes more birdies than anyone else and the last six winners have played the par fours better than anyone else so Par 4 Scoring is arguably the best stat to peruse.

The last seven winners have had an average Putting Average ranking of 18.14 and an average Greens In Regulation ranking of 8.42 and they're clearly important stats but which is more important is very hard to gauge...

In the five years between 2005 and 2009, four of the five winners ranked first for putting, with Chad Campbell (who ranked 6th) the odd man out but we've seen a few players win with poor Putting Average stats of late. Dufner ranked fifth last year and Reed ranked fourth when he won in 2014 but Brian Gay and Bill Haas managed to win recently with Putting Average rankings of 38th and 39th.

I fancy those two results are the exceptions rather than the rule and with six of the first eight ranking inside the top-ten for Putting Average last year, I'd be looked to fractionally favour putting over hitting greens.


Is There an Angle In?

The Sanderson Farms Championship was played at Annandale Golf Club between 1994 and 2013 and during that time, D.J Trahan, Chad Campbell and Bill Haas all won both that event and this one. And Scott Stallings really should have done so, too. He won the SFC in 2012 and traded heavy odds-on here before blowing a five-stroke final round lead, so, although it's a little old, Annandale form is most definitely worth close inspection but of more relevance now is form at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Phil Mickelson, Mark Wilson and Kenny Perry have won both this event and the Phoenix Open fairly recently and a number of players have come close to winning both. Dufner was beaten in a playoff there by Wilson in 2011, Charley Hoffman was beaten by Perry in extra time in Phoenix, two years after he'd won here, and Justin Leonard is another to win here and finish second in Phoenix.

Both are low-scoring events in the desert so it's not a surprise that they correlate nicely.

Dufner advertised his wellbeing with a ninth place finish at the Sony Open last year but good current form is far from an essential prerequisite. Two of the last ten winners were playing for the first time in more than two months and all five winners between 2008 and 2012 had missed the cut at the Sony the week before they won.


Is There an Identikit Winner?

The CareerBuilder Challenge is an extremely difficult event to weigh up, with all types winning at various points in time. It used to be a good event for the older, experienced players who could cope with the longevity of the rounds and the idle chatter with all the amateurs and plenty of event experience was important. Between 1984 and 2006, on average, the champion was playing in his seventh Bob Hope Classic but then that all changed.

Between 2007 and 2011, four of the five winners were winning on the PGA Tour for the first time and the odd man out, DJ Trahan in 2008, was winning just his second PGA Tour title. Big-hitting rookies were seemingly taking control but four years ago it was all change again, when the experienced Mark Wilson took the title in testing windy conditions before Brian Gay beat tour rookie and pre-event event 1000.0 shot, David Lingmerth, and perennial bridesmaid, Charles Howell III, in a playoff.

Having had one win under his belt - the Wyndham Championship five months earlier - Patrick Reed was still up-and-coming when he won here three years ago and having been matched as high as 140.0139/1 before the off, he was the seventh winner in-a-row to trade at a triple-figure price prior to kick-off but the last two have been fairly well fancied and I'm not convinced this is the outsiders' paradise it once was. Reed turned out to be pretty classy and the last two winners - Haas and Dufner - have been high class too.

Dufner and beaten playoff protagonist, Lingmerth, were four clear of the remainder and now that the event is using the tougher Pete Dye Stadium Course as the host course, I fancy the wheat will sort itself from the chaff again. The tournament has been getting stronger since it was reduced from five to four rounds and it will be interesting to see if we get another highly ranked winner this time around.

The late, great Arnold Palmer loved this event and he won it five times between 1960 and 1973 and Bill Hass became the seventh player, other than The King, to win it twice when he took the title in 2015 so multiple winners are fairly common.


In-Play Tactics

Prior to the last three renewals this was an event in which a number of winners recovered from relatively slow starts. Haas won from five back with two rounds to go when winning the first of his two titles seven years ago and three years before that, Justin Leonard was eight back at the same stage! And a number of winners have been four, five, six and even seven back with two rounds to go. That's all changed of late though with three of the last five winners being in front at halfway and four of the last five leading with a round to go. It's worth looking for an odds-on shot to take on though...

In seven of the last ten renewals, at least one player has traded at odds-on but ended up losing on a Sunday. Lingmerth was matched at 1.141/7 12 months ago and in 2013 there were two. Stallings hit a low of 1.141/7 and Charles Howell III was matched at 1.42/5 before Brian Gay went on to win.


Market Leaders

It's a sign of how open a tournament this is that 2014 winner, Patrick Reed, is the only man trading at less than 20.019/1 and he's only just below that mark. The Ryder Cup star wasn't well before he teed it up at Kapalua in the SBS Tournament of Champions two weeks ago so his sixth placed finish there was respectable enough.

Two-time tournament winner, Bill Haas, has started the season nicely and it's hard to envisage him not contending on the back off his tied 13th at the Sony Open. He's finished inside the top-ten in five of his last seven starts and I wouldn't want to put anyone off him. It's all there in front of everyone to see though and his price is short enough as a result.

Phil Mickelson is another one seeking a third title but he hasn't won in three-and-a-half years and he hasn't played anywhere since finishing eighth at the Safeway Open in October. He was always a standing dish on the West Coast Swing and he was always a very easy player to follow. All you needed to do was back him from the start of the year until the Masters was over and most years you'd end up nicely in front, but at 46 and without a win since he claimed the Claret Jug at Muirfield, caution needs to be exercised.

Francesco Molinari is a fabulous talent but he doesn't win anywhere near enough and he's never won on American soil. He's definitely not for me at around 30.029/1, even though he has form here, having finished 10th on debut in 2015.


Selections

Rain will irritate the field for most of the week, temperatures will be far cooler than the norm and we'll even get a bit of wind so I fancy it could be a week for a wily old patient pro, so step forward Zach Johnson.

The 40-year multiple winner is simply too big at 32.031/1 after his eye-catching performance last week at the Sony where he ranked 17th for GIR and eighth for Putting Average. He missed the cut here 12 months ago but not before he played the tougher new course in the rotation in a bogey-free five-under par 67 on the Saturday. If last week's performance, which saw him fire 61 in round two before he eventually finished sixth, wasn't a one-off, I can see Zach contending strongly.

My only other fancy is the first man out on Thursday, Patton Kizzire. This is Kizzire's first outing of the year and he looked in need of a break after missing his last three cuts, following a narrow defeat at the Safeway Open, where an errant driver cost him dear in round four. He finished runner-up in the Shriners Hospital for Children Open in his first start after graduating from the Web-com Tour in 2015 so we know he can play desert golf and his putting stats are very good. I thought this an ideal chance for him to get the year off to a flying start and 160.0159/1 looks big.


Selections:
Zach Johnson @ 32.031/1
Patton Kizzire @ 160.0159/1


I'll be back on Thursday with the In-Play Blog.


*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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