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California swing

You love the fairways but curse the bunkers. Now watch the pros rise—or fall—here in the West.

By Jerry HicksPublished: January, 2013

The desert oasis. The sun beaming down on pristine fairways. The rugged beauty of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Add a cold beer and a high-definition TV, and you’ve got golf at its most grand.

Meadowlark Golf Club in Huntington Beach is one of the busiest in the region, at more than 200 rounds per day. But this month, many of those golfers will be perched in front of one of the club’s nine wide-screen TVs, soaking in the opening weeks of the PGA Tour.

It’s the four tournaments of the California swing that draw the most interest.

“Many of our golfers have played those famous courses, and they love watching, [knowing] how they did on certain holes, [and comparing themselves] to the pros,” said Aaron Woodard, head pro at Meadowlark.

Especially the two Torrey Pines courses at La Jolla in northern San Diego County, both public courses just an hour south of Orange County. Woodard’s own favorite: Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula, which ranks among the Top 5 greatest American courses by almost any rating system.

“I got to play in a tournament [at Pebble Beach] in my junior golf years,” Woodard said. “Just stepping onto that historic course was unbelievable. But then I birdied No. 14 [an uphill par 5 that gives fits to even the touring pros]. It’s something I always remember when I watch that tournament.”

Of the $236 million estimated purses for the 2013 PGA Tour, a sizable chunk—about $25 million—comes from the four California winter tournaments.

One factor for the tournaments that follow the one in the desert: the weather. Rain, of course, is the one condition that tournament directors cannot control. Although, as Kristen Hunter, spokesman for the La Jolla stop, notes: “There’s an old saying: The show must go on. We never let the weather stop us.”

This year’s tour begins with two tournaments in Hawaii. Here’s a closer look at the four Southern California tournaments that follow:


HUMANA CHALLENGE
The most notable golfer at last year’s Humana Challenge in the Palm Springs area can’t break 80. In fact, quite often he doesn’t break 90. But the Humana folks were ecstatic about his arrival.

He’s ex-president William Jefferson Clinton (above). And he’s scheduled to play again this month.

The Clinton Foundation teamed up with Humana Inc. to sponsor last year’s tournament, and that partnership is in place this year. Clinton played with the pros in the third round of last year’s tournament. Officials aren’t sure yet how much playing he will do, but he’s bringing his clubs.

“There are a lot of complications, like dealing with the Secret Service, but we think it will all work out and he’ll play,” said Greg Ball, a spokesman for the tournament.

The tournament recently made another major announcement: Phil Mickelson will make his 2013 debut at the Humana event. Mickelson doesn’t always play the desert tournament.

“He’s a two-time winner here—and he’s Phil Mickelson,” said Bob Marra, executive director of the Humana Challenge. “The legacy he has left on our event is undeniable, and his popularity with our fans is remarkable.”

This time last year, few tournaments went out of their way to boast of journeyman player Brandt Snedeker joining the entry list. But that was before the fall, when Snedeker won the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus. Now everyone wants him, and the Humana folks are pushing publicity about Snedeker’s confirmation.

But the secret to the success of the Humana Challenge comes from factors other than big names. It’s all that oasis beauty, said spokesman Greg Ball: “The weather is always perfect. The golf courses are in absolutely perfect condition. And we always draw major celebrities in the entertainment industry for the fans to watch.”

Also, the three courses are slightly shorter than the average tour courses, which means the scores are lower. “People love watching all those birdies,” Ball said.

Along with the familiarity there is longevity: The tournament was founded in 1960 as the Palm Springs Golf Classic before becoming the Bob Hope Classic. And of course there’s that iconic name and the event’s longtime connection to the legendary comedian, who always teed off with the previous year’s winner--and often an ex-president such as friend Gerald Ford. Hope’s name was on the trophy for some 50 years.

The tournament has been played on a number of desert courses but in recent years has settled down to three: La Quinta Country Club and the Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer courses at PGA West, also in La Quinta. The final round will be on the Palmer Course.

“Several of those final holes run right up against the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains,” said Ball, “about as picturesque as you can get for a golf tournament.”

At a glance:
Dates: Jan. 17-20
Site: La Quinta (Palm Springs area)
Courses: PGA West (Palmer and Nicklaus courses), La Quinta Country Club. Final round on the Palmer course
Scorecard: (Palmer Course) par 72, 6,950 yards
2012 winner: Mark Wilson
2013 purse: $5.6 million (winner’s share $1,008,000)
Tickets: $90 advance package required for all three courses, plus Wednesday practice round. $120 at the gate
TV: Golf Channel all four days


FARMERS INSURANCE OPEN
It’s those breathtaking bluffs, rising high above the Pacific for both the Torrey Pines South and North courses, that you always see on television. But it’s the inland closing holes on the South where all the main action takes place. Especially the par-5 18th over an infamous small pond.

Who can forget 2008? Picture Tiger Woods playing with a broken leg, making that long downhill birdie putt on that par 5 closer to force his way into a playoff--and going on to win the U.S. Open.

Similarly, late-breaking drama erupted last year during the Farmers tournament. Newcomer Kyle Stanley had the tournament all but wrapped up when his approach to the 18th rolled back into the pond. He three-putted from 47 feet, which allowed another player slip into a tie. In fact, that interloper went on to beat Stanley in the playoff.

That winner’s name? Brandt Snedeker, the same guy who later last year became the talk of tour after his $10 million FedExCup.

In fact, Snedeker credits the Farmers Insurance tournament--when he started the final day seven shots behind Stanley--for kick-starting his great 2012.

Said Snedeker at the time: “You’ve got to keep plugging. You just never know. My favorite saying is, play like the four-horse in a five-horse race, blinders on, full steam ahead.”

Snedeker will return to defend his title. And you can bet his is the first name mentioned on the tournament’s official website.

At a glance
Dates: Jan. 24-27
Site: La Jolla (northern San Diego County)
Courses: Torrey Pines (South and North courses). Final two days on the South Course
Scorecard: (South Course) par 72, 7,569 yards
2012 winner: Brandt Snedeker
2013 purse: $6 million (winner’s share $1,044,000)
Tickets: $40 daily at the gate, $26 seniors
TV: Golf Channel/CBS final two days


AT&T PEBBLE BEACH NATIONAL PRO-AM

Perhaps the most famous line ever said about any golf course anywhere came from the great Jack Nicklaus, who said of this famous golfing mecca: “If I had to play just one golf course, it would be Pebble Beach.”

The tour moves to Arizona for a week after La Jolla and then returns to California and its picturesque Carmel Bay area. Players love the Monterey Peninsula Course, tolerate the scenic but difficult Spyglass, and revere Pebble Beach, where all of the pros play the final round.

“It’s the beauty of Pebble Beach, but it’s also the tradition that draws attention,” said Laura Hill, spokesman for the PGA Tour.

For most of its life, the tournament was known as the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. The crooner’s name was associated with the tournament he created--he started off calling it a clambake--for some 40 years, even after his death in 1977. AT&T has sponsored the tournament since 1986.

There’s a reason the Pebble Beach tournament is touting the return of defending champion Mickelson. But it’s not Mickelson’s face you first see on the tournament’s website. It’s those famous waves crashing against the rocks along the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach, perhaps the most famous closing par-5 hole in all of golf.

Non-pro players also draw attention, of course. For many years the celebrity list was dominated by actors Jack Lemmon and James Garner. Lemmon has passed on; Garner, in his 70s, doesn’t always play for health reasons. Then came the Clint Eastwood years (so popular as a hometown commodity, he even did a stint as mayor of neighboring Carmel).

Today the celebrity list is topped by actor-comic Bill Murray, a crowd favorite whose antics occasionally irk a player or two, and newlywed actor-singer Justin Timberlake.

Still, expect the biggest golf name to be Mickelson. After winning last year—with a closing 64—he told the media: “It just feels great to win this tournament. It’s a special place for me. My grandfather caddied here, and the place is such a national treasure.”

By the way, not all of the sports celebrities at the tournament will be known until the last minute. Explained Hill of the PGA Tour: “We have to see who’s going to be [in] the Super Bowl.”

One name not expected to be on the list this year: Tiger Woods. He made his 2012 debut at Pebble Beach but got spanked by Mickelson by 11 shots on closing day. (As of press time, Woods had made no commitment to return.)

At a glance
Dates: Feb. 7-10
Site: Monterey Peninsula
Courses: Pebble Beach Golf Links, Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course), Spyglass Hill Golf Course
Scorecard: (Pebble Beach) par 72, 6,737 yards.
2012 winner: Phil Mickelson
2013 purse: $6.4 million (winner’s share $1,134,000)
Tickets: $60 at the gate, $50 in advance
TV: Golf Channel/CBS final two days


NORTHERN TRUST OPEN
This is another tour stop that’s popular with players simply because they love the famous golf course: Riviera Country Club, which insiders call “the Riv.”

Golf analyst Johnny Miller, who once lost there by a shot to Tom Watson after bogeying the 17th hole, has called Riviera “one of the greatest no-nonsense golf courses in the world, where you have to play every club in your bag.”

Its short, 315-yard, par-4 No. 10 may be the most famous short hole to start a back nine. Players are tempted to go for the well-trapped green on their drives. And the uphill, dog-leg-right 18th may be the most famous par-four closing hole in golf, with players hitting their golfers shooting toward the grand Riviera Country Club as a backdrop on a knoll above the final green. Robert Allenby in 2001 birdied that hole in the rain to win a six-man playoff.

Yet here’s another tournament where the biggest name of the week won’t be any top golfer but rather a Hall of Famer from another sport: Basketball great Jerry West is serving for the fourth year as executive director of the tournament.

“He does it to raise awareness for the many charities and to give back to the game,” said the PGA Tour’s Hill. “We’re so lucky to have him.”

The Northern Trust is the only one of the four California tournaments run by the PGA Tour itself. It’s also the oldest of the four, dating to 1926. It became known as “Hogan’s Alley” after the great Ben Hogan won both the L.A. Open and the U.S Open at Riviera in 1948.

The tournament has lots of other firsts: Jack Nicklaus collected his first paycheck as a pro there in 1962 ($33.33). Babe Zaharias became the first woman to play in a PGA men’s event there (1938). And, at 16, Tiger Woods played his first PGA tour event as an amateur there (1992).

As for that famous par-4 10th shortie: Last year Bill Haas birdied that hole to defeat Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in a playoff. Haas has committed to return to defend his title. No word yet on Mickelson for 2013, although he’s a two-time winner there and has declared Riviera one of his favorite tracks.

At a glance
Dates: Feb. 14-17
Site: Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades
Scorecard: par 71, 7,279 yards
2012 winner: Bill Haas
2013 purse: $6.6 million (winner’s share $1,170,000)
Tickets: $45 at the gate ($20 practice rounds). Free admission to active military, discounts for veterans
TV: Golf Channel/CBS final two days





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Comment at 2/27/2013
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