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After a few weeks of island hopping, the PGA TOUR heads back to the mainland for The American Express in Palm Springs.
This tournament in the desert is a full-field event with 156 golfers lined up to play this week. On top of that, it's a pro-am event so each pro will have an amateur by his side which impacts the course setup and overall scoring environment as a result.
Due to the pro-am format of this event, the field isn't trimmed until Sunday, with each golfer guaranteed three rounds of action before the top 65 and ties play the final round.
This week's event uses three courses over the first three rounds before finishing things up on the host course, the Pete Dye Stadium Course. Let's discuss all three layouts.
Stadium Course at PGA WEST (Host Course):
This course is known as a sequel or continuation of TPC Sawgrass. It's been the host venue of this event since the 2016 edition. It was also one of four courses utilized in the 1987 edition.
Looking at the scorecard, you'll see a par 72 that plays to just 7,158 yards. Three of the par 5s play at 560 yards or shorter, which means lots of eagle opportunities.
As you might expect from a Dye design, it's diabolical and there are big numbers lurking everywhere.
However, they set up the course to be playable for the amateurs in the field, so we don't get to see in full force. As is, it can still give the pros nightmares. There is water in play on seven holes and it is very much in play. When we look at historical double bogey or worse rates, the Stadium Course is right up there near the top of the list in terms of toughest on TOUR. Other courses with comparable double bogey rates include TPC Southwind, Sheshan International, Augusta National, and Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
Having some past success on Pete Dye designs and/or water-heavy courses can certainly been seen as a positive this week since golfers will see the Stadium Course twice, if they make the cut.
In true boom-or-bust nature, the Stadium Course also boasts a 23% birdie-or-better rate which sits inside of the top 10 in terms of ease, among regular PGA TOUR stops.
For grasses, the bermuda base was overseeded in mid-October. The ryegrass has had plenty of time to take hold and become the dominant strand here. So, despite this course often being listed as bermuda, we should consider it more aligned with bentgrass or poa annua performance. The greens speeds usually sit around 11 feet on the stimp for tournament week which is on the slow side by TOUR standards.
Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA WEST:
This course has been in the rota since the 2016 edition of this event. It is a par 72 that sits at 7,147 yards on the scorecard. Like the host layout above, the Nick Tourney is pretty short by TOUR standards.
There are even more eagles landed at the Nicklaus Tournament Course, as three of the par 5s check-in at 549 yards or shorter. If you're not scoring on the par 5s this week, you're going to have a bad time.
Looking at rates of scoring, this venue has produced a field average birdie-or-better rate of 26 percent which is right up there with La Quinta CC and Kapalua as the easiest on TOUR.
The name of the game is wedge play here as six of the par 4s play at 444 yards or shorter and none of them play more than 462 yards.
For grasses, it's the same as I just talked about the Stadium Course above. The base is bermudagrass but the course was closed for overseeding on October 11th. What we're looking at this time of year is ryegrass and poa trivialis.
La Quinta Country Club:
After leaving the rotation for a year, due to COVID-19, this Lawrence Hughes design is back in the rotation this week.
For tournament purposes, this is a par 72 that barely clips the 7,000-yard mark (7,060).
La Quinta used to be the hardest course in the AmEx rotation but it's now arguably the easiest.
The field has averaged birdie or better on 26.7% of the holes played in the last eight editions where La Quinta CC was a part of the event. That is the easiest BoB rate across the entire PGA TOUR, over that time frame.
Where does all of the scoring take place? The four par 5s all play under 550 yards and field combines to play them at 2-under-par, on average. The par-5 13th yields birdies around 43% of the time and a 2% eagle rate, to boot. Oh, and that is the toughest of the par 5s on this course. Play them at anything less than 2-under and it'll feel like you're leaving a lot of strokes behind.
How was this course previously the toughest of the bunch? Well, it has tight fairways and small greens. It's not an easy course for amateurs to play, but a lot easier for the pros because they keep the rough very manageable to help the Ams make their way around.
Proving just how low you can go at the course, Adam Hadwin fired his infamous 13-under 59 during the 2017 edition. "La Quinta is one of those courses where obviously if you’re hitting the ball well off the tee — it’s much more narrow than the other two golf courses — but if you’re hitting it well on the tee you got a lot of wedges in, you can be aggressive and the greens here are always so pure."
Just like the other two courses, we have dormant bermuda turf with ryegrass overseed. The pin placements and green speeds will be kept on the easy side to help amateurs reduce their pace of play.
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Quotes on the Course
Phil Mickelson: "my goal or game plan of playing the Stadium Course is to actually hit drivers and to try to bomb it down there as close to the greens as you can. Even though the — because the fairways are tight in a lot of areas and if I miss fairways, try to have wedges or short irons in — and it seemed to play out okay today and I gave myself a lot of good chances."
Patrick Reed: "Unlike at Q-School, the pins are a little bit more accessible, because you’re playing with amateurs as well, they’re not going to put pins three paces from the edge, because then you might not finish. So, they put the pins a little bit more accessible, that’s why you see a little lower scores. If they were to tuck the pins like they normally do on PGA TOUR weeks, the score would get cut in half. Because now you’re hitting some 6-irons and 5-irons and 7-irons into greens and you’re able to go flag hunting."
Hudson Swafford: "I think you need to hit your irons well here. I think you need to give yourself as many birdie opportunities as possible. Putting is a big part of this event, but the greens are a little tricky to read with the overseed."
Adam Hadwin: "Living in Phoenix for the last seven years or so now it’s kind of all the golf that I’ve seen, mostly. So the way it sets up, the way the grass is, the way the greens are, this is what I grew up putting on as well, so I love putting on the West Coast. I feel like chipping from around the greens seems a lot easier, just the way the grass is. I struggle with Bermuda still and so I kind of like to make hay on the West Coast when I can."
Being comfortable out West is a common theme, and as Reed alluded to, many pros have seen this course over the years at Q-School.
Using historical data from this week's venue, we can look for other courses across the PGA TOUR schedule with crossover success (or failure). Here are the courses that pop up frequently:
TPC Deere Run
Torrey Pines is the outlier in terms of length here but it's played around the same time on the schedule, similar grasses, and not much penalty for missing fairways. The other three are easy, TPC layouts with lots of scoring chances.
Thursday: Sunny with a high of 78 degrees. Wind at 6 to 10 MPH.
Friday: Sunny with a high of 74 degrees. Calm winds.
As you might expect when you head to Palm Springs, there is beautiful weather in the forecast. Should be ideal for scoring this week.
Golfers to Watch
He's a past champ here (2018) and posted a solo 6th in his only return visit since that win (2019). Coming off a close call at Kapalua, the Spaniard is the man to beat this week.
Arriving off a rare missed cut, the youngster will look to get back on track at PGA WEST. This is a set of courses that have treated him very well, early in his career. The Korean is 3-for-3 here with finishes of T12-T10-T12 and I would expect more of the same this week.
Si Woo Kim
Sticking with Korean, Kim is the defending champ this week. He is 3-for-4 at the AmEx with another notable finish of T9 (2016) in addition to his win. That lone blemish was actually a WD in 2020 after opening with 87 at the Nicklaus Tournament Course. That sums up his range of outcomes pretty well and helps explain why he was the first name of my list when ranking the field. His upside deserves attention but he's still pretty volatile.
Similar to Si Woo above, the young Cali Kid has a lot of volatility. He sports winning upside any time he pegs it but is not the most consistent from week to week. Wolff looked very strong in the fall, ending his year with four straight top 20s, two doubling as top 5s. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain that momentum after a break or if he'll need a few rounds to shake off the cobwebs. He has finished T61 and T40 in two tries at PGA WEST.
Trying to find a consistent course horse at PGA WEST? Hadwin is 6-for-6 at this event with four of those finishes going for T6 or better. Last year wasn't the most consistent of his career but he did post three top 10s in his last nine starts. That includes a sixth-place finish at TPC Summerlin, a correlated course due to its desert style, regional location, and easy scoring environment.
Ranking the Field
1. Jon Rahm
2. Patrick Cantlay
3. Sungjae Im
4. Tony Finau
5. Scottie Scheffler
6. Talor Gooch
7. Abraham Ancer
8. Corey Conners
9. Seamus Power
10. Russell Henley
11. Alex Noren
12. Cameron Tringale
13. Christiaan Bezuidenhout
14. Will Zalatoris
15. Matthew Wolff
16. Patrick Reed
17. Taylor Moore
18. Justin Rose
19. Jhonattan Vegas
20. Rickie Fowler