The PGA Tour returns to the West Coast this week for the 60th anniversary edition of the Desert Classic. Read our man's comprehensive preview ahead of Thursday's start.
"This is going to be the first event of 2019 for a number of players, including the well-fancied pair, Justin Rose and Patrick Cantlay, but the stats suggest they’re going to be handicapped somewhat. Since Charley Hoffman won when playing in his first event of the year in 2007, 10 of the next 11 winners have all had at least one start. Bill Haas, back in 2015, is the odd man out."
After a couple of weeks in Hawaii, the PGA Tour moves on to California for the 60th edition of the Desert Classic, formerly the CareerBuilder Challenge.
The Desert Classic 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 the perception was that 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 a much better received event as a result, although it's a little disconcerting that it doesn't have a sponsor this year.
The tournament is a Pro-Am staged over three different 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.
The Stadium Course, La Quinta, California
PGA West (TPC Stadium Course), par 72, 7,300 yards - Scoring Average in 2018 - 71.18
PGA West (Nicklaus Tournament Course), par 72, 7,204 yards - Scoring Average in 2018 - 69.44
La Quinta Country Club, par 72, 7,060 yards - Scoring Average in 2018 - 68.83
The Pete Dye-designed PGA West Stadium Course was used for the first time three years ago and, as demonstrated by the averages above, it's the hardest of the three used.
La Quinta was the easiest of the three courses again last year and it's been the easiest par 72 used on the PGA Tour in each of the last two years. The Nicklaus Tournament Course was the second easiest.
With amateurs playing, the set-up is deliberately less demanding than usually encountered on the PGA Tour and very low scoring is the norm. The greens are set at around 11 on the stimpmeter and the rough is minimal.
Live on Sky Sports all four days. There is some featured groups coverage on Sky from 16:30 on Thursday and the full coverage begins at 20:00.
Last Five Winners
2018 - Jon Rahm -22 (playoff)
2017 - Hudson Swafford -20
2016 - Jason Dufner -25
2015 - Bill Haas -22
2014 - Patrick Reed -28
What Will it Take to Win the Desert Classic?
What you do off the tee here is largely irrelevant. Last year's winner, Jon Rahm, ranked fifth for Driving Distance but the man he beat in a playoff, Andrew Landry, only ranked 64th and three players tied for third ranked 37th, 52nd and 57th. Landry ranked 17th for Driving Accuracy but the other four players to finish inside the top-five ranked between 23rd and 37th for DA.
Rahm only ranked 20th for Greens In Regulation last year but the average ranking of the last ten winners is 9.7 and he had a Putting Average ranking of 8th. The average Putting Average ranking for the last ten is 16, so as one would expect from a birdie-fest, it's all about hitting greens and holing putts but the best stat to ponder is Par 4 Scoring...
Rahm played the long holes better than anyone else last year and he only ranked fifth for Par 4 Scoring but had Landry won the playoff, he would have been the eighth winner in-a-row to top the Par 4 Scoring stats for the week.
Is There an Angle In?
This is going to be the first event of 2019 for a number of players, including the well-fancied pair, Justin Rose and Patrick Cantlay, but the stats suggest they're going to be handicapped somewhat. Since Charley Hoffman won when playing in his first event of the year in 2007, 10 of the next 11 winners have all had at least one start. Bill Haas, back in 2015, is the odd man out.
Interestingly, a decent performance didn't seem to be an imperative until recently and between 2008 and 2012, all five winners had missed the cut at the Sony Open and the 2012 winner, Mark Wilson, was the only winner to have also teed it up at the Sentry Tournament of Champions the week before - where he'd finished 18th.
The 2013 winner, Brian Gay, had finished 31st at the Sony in his sole previous start and Patrick Reed, the 2014 champ, had finished 16th in the Sentry TOC but the last three winners had all shown something significant before they won. Jason Dufner took the title having finished ninth in the Sony three years ago, Hudson Swafford signalled his wellbeing with a 13th place at the Sony and last year's winner, Rahm, had finished runner-up to Dustin Johnson in the Sentry TOC.
From a course correlation perspective, form at TPC Scottsdale, where the Waste Management Phoenix Open is staged, is worthy of close inspection.
Phil Mickelson, Mark Wilson and Kenny Perry have all 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.
Jesper Parnevik, John Rollins and Ryan Palmer have all finished runner-up at both events and Phoenix is where last year's winner, Rahm, first came to the attention of the watching world when he finished fifth in just his second professional start in 2015. He's since finished 16th and 11th there but last year's 11th was a strange effort given he sat second and just one off the lead with a round to go.
Both are low-scoring events in the desert so it's not a surprise that they correlate nicely.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The Desert Classic is a difficult event to weigh up, with all types of characters winning at various points in time.
Back when the tournament was played over five rounds, 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 Desert 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 only his second PGA Tour title.
Big-hitting rookies were seemingly taking control but six 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 1000.0 shot, David Lingmerth, and Charles Howell III in a playoff.
Having had only one win under his belt - the Wyndham Championship five months earlier - Patrick Reed was still up-and-coming when he won five 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 four winners haven't been quite so outlandish and all of them were trading at a double-figure price or less before the off. Rahm was the well-backed 9/1 favourite.
Swafford was winning his first PGA Tour event when he took the title two years ago but he was the first first-time PGA Tour winner in five years, so we have a mixed bag of results and it looks hard to predict.
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.
Prior to the last five renewals this was an event in which several winners recovered from relatively slow starts. Haas won from five back with two rounds to go when winning the first of his two titles nine 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. Most famously, David Duval in 1999, who trailed by seven before he shot 59 to win by a stroke. Where did that 20 years go!
Things have changed dramatically of late though and it's been a while since we saw an off-the-pace winner...
Rahm led after a ten-under-par 62 around La Quinta on day one last year. He sat second and one back at halfway and he was tied for fourth and two adrift with a round to go. Having sat second after round one, first at halfway and third after round three, the 2017 winner, Swafford, was never outside the first three places and up with the pace is the new norm. Even though Rahm slipped out of the lead 12 months ago, four of the last seven winners have been in front at halfway and four of the last seven were leading with a round to go. Being up with the pace is the place to be now but it's still worth looking for an odds-on shot to take on in-running if recent results are anything to go by.
In nine of the last 12 renewals, at least one player has traded at odds-on but ended up losing on a Sunday. Landry was matched at 1.528/15 in the playoff last year, Chad Campbell dipped to 1.758/11 in 2017, David Lingmerth was matched at just 1.14] in 2015 and in 2013 there were two to trade really short and get beat. Scott 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 the title. And it's also worth mentioning how lucky in-running punters were with Rahm last year. He was matched for more than 30k at 1.061/18 in regulation play and he hit a low of 1.051/20 before Landry birdied the 72nd hole to take the event to extra time.
Jon Rahm won this event 12 months ago without being at his absolute best after the opening round and he's a desert golf specialist. As many as eight players have won the event on more than one occasion but we're yet to witness a successful defence and after his respectable outing in Hawaii two weeks ago, when he finished eighth, that's just about the only negative I can find. He's the worthy favourite and far and away the one I like best at the head of the market.
World number one, Justin Rose, is also a great desert golfer but there are far more negatives surrounding the Englishman. He hasn't played since making a complete mess of his title defence at the Indonesian Masters before Christmas, when returning to the top of the world rankings (something he's done since without playing!) appeared to be a factor in his poor performance. In addition to that distraction, he hasn't played here since missing the cut nine years ago and he's also changed clubs since we last saw him - switching to Honma. He's not for me.
Patrick Cantlay finished 2018 well but looks short enough given he hasn't played in a while and Charles Howell III looks a shocking price given his appalling strike rate.
I've had a very small saver on Jon Rahm and I was tempted by a number of players that contended last week but I'm only playing one - Chez Reavie.
Both Andrew Putnam, who finished second to Matt Kuchar, and the 2017 winner of this event, Hudson Swafford, who finished tied third at the Sony, command much respect but I just prefer Reavie.
Reavie, who finished alongside Swafford at the Sony, lost a playoff to Gary Woodland at the aforementioned Phoenix Open last year before going on to finish runner-up at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am the following week. Looking back, it's not unusual for him to hold his form and given he has recent course form figures that read 17-12-36, I thought he was worth chancing at 46.045/1.
A number of others were considered and should any of them drift to a big enough price before the off, I'll add them to the portfolio and include them in the In-Play Blog, which I'll kick off on Thursday morning, after the first round of the Abu Dhabi Championship (previewed here), which starts tomorrow.
I won't be too upset if I end up starting the event with only Rahm and Reavie onside as I really want to get stuck in - in-running after the opening round given how strong the recent trends are favouring the early leaders.
Jon Rahm @ 8.88/1
Chez Reavie @ 46.045/1
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