The American Express is back in the desert for the 64th year in a row this week.
But it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. It’s time to talk about the impact LIV golf is – or isn’t – having on the desert’s PGA Tour event.
The defending champion of the American Express, Hudson Swafford, will not be in the field this week because he left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf last year. Also missing for the same reason will be three other past champions: Patrick Reed, Pat Perez and, most notably, Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson, a two-time winner of the La Quinta tournament, also served as the official host of the American Express for the last three years, though he didn’t do anything that publicly looked like hosting the tournament in 2022. He might have left the tournament as host on his own after last year anyway, but the PGA Tour showed Mickelson and the Mickelson Foundation the door after comments he made became public about the Saudi Arabians behind the LIV tour and Mickelson’s reason for dealing with “scary” people in order to reshape the PGA Tour.
And there are a few other LIV players not in the field, like Abraham Ancer and Kevin Na. So what does that all mean for the 2023 American Express?
Well, not that much, really.
The folks who run the American Express can only play the hand they are dealt, and that means no Mickelson or Swafford or a few other players. But in poker terms, he American Express still has a live hand.
Yes, the tournament is without at least one marquee player in Mickelson, who has been very popular in the desert with fans, though not always with tournament officials. Even at 52 years old and well beyond his prime, Mickelson would sell some tickets to the event.
And Swafford won’t be a figure early in the week, talking about his two wins in the desert, the weather and the golf courses.
But beyond an early week press conference from Swafford and the week-long story that Mickelson might provide, the American Express will be conducted just as it always has. Talented golfers, interesting golf courses and maybe some sketchy weather early in the week will be the storylines.
That’s not to say that the LIV golfers aren’t fine players. They are, and some are exceptional players who would be big additions to any tournament in the world. Not all of them have played in the desert in the past, though, and the tournament can easily move forward with the golfers who aren’t suspended and have committed to the event.
Mickelson is really the only missing element this week that is difficult to replace. He’s a World Golf Hall of Famer and will go down as one of the best in the history of the Tour. Guys with that resume don’t just fall off trees.
Reed is a past American Express winner and a past Masters champion. But the reigning Masters champion, Scottie Scheffler, is in the La Quinta field as are past Masters winners Danny Willett and Zach Johnson.
One of the game’s hottest players, Jon Rahm, is also back this week. The 2018 American Express champion, Rahm just won his eighth PGA Tour event, is coming off a year of winning on the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour and seems primed to make a run at a second major title this year.
Patrick Cantlay, one of the game’s top players, is entered this week as are Xander Schauffele and Will Zalatoris. Rising stars such as Sahith Theegala, Tom Kim and Tom Hoge, accomplished veterans like Stewart Cink and Justin Rose and more rising stars than you can name are in the desert, too.
You can be on either side of the LIV vs. PGA Tour argument, and that’s fine. But the key to PGA Tour events at the moment is they have remarkably deep fields, deeper than the LIV fields. And the PGA Tour events are on television.
No one is sure exactly how LIV vs. the PGA Tour will end, and we might not know until a court case scheduled for a year from now. But the American Express can’t wait for that. The tournament has to conduct a 72-hole tournament for $8 million this week, hoping to raise more than $1 million for Coachella Valley charities.
American Express, tournament officials and volunteers will do all of that this week, with or without the LIV players. Who knows, maybe in 2024 everyone will get together and make amends and be happy to be in the Coachella Valley in January.