Inside the Ropes
The hit and giggle once known as the Bob Hope Celebrity Desert Classic has morphed into the Humana Challenge. The days of celebrities are over as they have been replaced by fitness and healthy living. The great escape in the Coachella Valley is now a three day Pro-Am and a Sunday shootout for pros only. Using three of the easier courses on TOUR, gamers should expect super-low scores, tons of birdies/eagles and the unexpected to happen. Last year, Brian Gay entered the final round SIX shots behind 54-hole leader Scott Stallings but his Sunday 63 got him in the playoff that he eventually won. 63. On Sunday. Nobody is ever out of this event!
With minimal rough and the absence of weather, the players who can keep their balls out of the water and bogeys off their cards will be successful this week. Course knowledge helps as well but so does an excellent short game evidenced by the recent winners. As with most Palmer and Nicklaus courses, there is plenty of room to drive the golf ball but Wilson and Gay have proven that driving distance hardly matters around here. As with most Palmer and Nicklaus designs, the shots become more difficult as the greens are approached. Players who are patient and don’t fire at EVERY pin and don’t challenge every tee shot will be the ones who will be challenging on Sunday. So will the players who don’t mind the Pro-Am format. Watching a couple of chops hack it around while playing for a million or so bucks can be annoying so find players in the proper state of mind!
Last season, these three courses were the three easiest on TOUR. The Nicklaus course played a full, four shots under par. The Palmer course played just over three shots under. La Quinta Country Club played at 2.5 shots to the good. These courses saw extensive winds in 2012 and yet the winning score for 72-holes was 24-under (Mark Wilson). The job this week is to find players who are birdie machines as bogeys are taboo. Brian Gay made TWO last year en route to victory. Scott Stallings made three for the week, all on Sunday, and missed the playoff by a shot. Pars don’t hurt; bogeys do. To put this all in perspective, 20-under was T16 at the conclusion of play on Sunday. That’s insane!
The players that should be on your fantasy rosters and should be making the most noise come the weekend. Yahoo! gamers, each player’s Yahoo! group is in ( ).
Webb Simpson (B): Anytime making a boatload of birdies is on the cards, I tend to look in Simpson’s direction. He’s already shown in the early season that he has no problem getting low as he won in Las Vegas at 24-under and was T3 at Kapalua on 17-under. He leads the TOUR in scoring and is sixth in birdie-or-better conversion percentage. I lost the notation but saw 10% of his rounds last year were bogey-free. The TOUR average was around 3.5%. Simpson’s wife is due in the spring so I won’t be surprised if he tries and bag as much cash as possible before kid No. 3 arrives. #golow
Zach Johnson (B): He’s played this event the last two seasons and has posted 19-under both times so he’s just a couple shots here or there from winning. Those 19-unders have only garnered T23 in 2013 and T8 in 2012. He has the temperament, the wedge and the putter for this layout and his current form is just a shade above decent. I also like the fact that he’s scheduled this event for the third time in a row.
Brandt Snedeker (A): Does this sound familiar? Like Johnson, Snedeker has also finished on 19-under the last two seasons. He was also T10 in 2010 and MC on nine-under in 2011 so this will be the fifth year on the trot for Sneds as he works his game back into shape after another early season injury. After walking four rounds at Kapalua, I bet he enjoyed his rest last week. With his short game, it’s also impossible to count him out this week unless he finds a Segway.
Harris English (C): There’s no reason to hop off this Bulldog train this week. If he would have made anything on Sunday at the Sony, we might be talking about him as they only two-time winner on TOUR this year instead of Jimmy Walker. He fired 16-under as a rookie to T19 and was T65 last year. He’s made the second-most birdies on TOUR this year. That will come in handy this week. Plus his form is quite solid.
Charles Howell III (A): He’s the Winter Mayor of this column as he just keeps churning out top 10s during the coldest months. His worst finish in his last six events is T33. During those six events, he’s racked up four top 10s, including T8 last week at Sony. He’s second on TOUR in scoring average and fourth in birdies made. He’s long off the tee, accurate into the greens and can really putt it. No wonder he was P2 here last year. Charlie Three Sticks is looking for win number III.
Ryan Palmer (C): With a fourth in 2011 and T6 last year, Palmer has been in the conversation two of the last three years. He’s coming off a very solid T8 at the Sony and he didn’t make anything. He only made three bogeys here last year (one double) and only made six bogeys last week. I also like this is 10th time he’s in this event.
Billy Horschel (B): This will be his fourth tournament in the desert and last year he finally looked more comfortable as he finished T10 at 21-under. In his first two events in the desert, young Horschel opened with 77 each time, eliminating himself from contention. After 72-72 to open last time out at Kapalua, Horschel again rebounded for 68-66 to finish T6 with 23 birdies so he should be ready to make even more birdies this week in the desert on a course he’s seen before!
Keegan Bradley (B): Gamers welcome Bradley back to the fray for the first time since his solo 10th and T11 in Asia. He did pop back up at Tiger Wood’s tournament in December but looked rusty. Bradley is tabbed by most, including me, to fire in 2014 and to get back into the winner’s circle. His only other appearance in this event was his rookie year of 2011 where he was 23-under in five rounds. He’s a superb driver of the golf ball and eats five pars for breakfast.
Bill Haas (B): The 2010 champ has not finished outside the top 28 since last March at Doral when he’s made the cut. This is a recording. He backed up his win in 2010 with T2 in 2011 but he was T64 in 2012 and MC in 2013. The question for Haas is will his putter get hot enough to keep up with his excellent ball-striking.
Charley Hoffman (C): After winning in his maiden voyage, Hoffman returned to the top 10 last year as he was 21-under. That was his third top 10 in seven starts so #horseforcourse is in play. Hoffman’s last top 10 was solo fourth in another desert, Las Vegas, back in October. I like that he was 11th in birdie average and 12th in the all-around in 2013.
Jeff Overton (C): His excellent beginning to 2013-14 continued to motor on last week in Hawaii as the newlywed finished in the top 10 for the second straight season at the Sony. Overton was in the thick of the action on the back nine before three bogeys coming home knocked him off the podium. Overton has never MC in four attempts in the desert and closed 66-64 last year to finish -18. In six starts this season JO has T7, T9 and a pair of 16s to show for his effort. #hot
Gary Woodland (A): He finished second to Ryan Moore in Malaysia and also participated in the Nedbank Challenge is South Africa so it’s no wonder why he might have ran out of gas Sunday at Kapalua to finish T11. He was 12th on TOUR in 2013 in total birdies and lost here in a playoff to Mr. Vegas in 2011. He’s been under par in 11 of 12 rounds in three trips over the years.