The ebb and flow of the PGA Tour in recent years has tilted toward Florida as the place where the calendar year really begins. The Florida Swing is where the stars came out as they prepared for the run-up to the year’s first major among the azaleas.
This year seems to be tilted in the other direction. For one reason or a few, the game’s biggest names are choosing to kick things off on the West Coast, which means that you can get excited about professional golf before the Super Bowl, for once.
Jon Rahm, now No. 2 in the world, achieved that lofty ranking by winning the CareerBuilder Challenge in a four-hole playoff over Andrew Landry, who was looking for his first PGA Tour title.
Rahm, in just his second full year on Tour, was the highest-ranked player in the field in Palm Springs but not the biggest name. Phil Mickelson was trying to find some 27-year-old form in his 47-year-old body, and Bubba Watson was deep in search for the long-lost player who won two Masters titles.
This week, the golf world is all lit up by the return to the Tour of Tiger Woods (tee times: http://bit.ly/2n4DNDq). Declaring himself pain-free and starting his year at the site where he won his last major championship, Woods and Torrey Pines have been a match made in golf heaven. He has won there eight times, including the 2008 U.S. Open.
The seaside air is thick with anticipation and by Sunday, the number of questions about Woods will exceed the number of answers.
Jason Day also is in the field at the Farmers Insurance Open, starting his year a little later than normal, as he has been a regular in recent years at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. His start at Torrey Pines is likely an effort to kick-start 2018 and leave 2017 in the rearview mirror.
Day was winless in 2017, and the former world No. 1 has slipped to No. 14 in the Official World Golf Ranking. It seems as if Day is either sick or injured much of the time. He reacted to his poor play last summer by firing longtime caddie and mentor Colin Swatton, who Day says will remain his swing coach.
Rahm is also in the field this week and has committed to play next week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he has competed in two of the past three years, including 2015, when he finished T-5 as a collegian at nearby Arizona State.
Rory McIlroy, who has slipped to No. 13 in the world ranking, is entered in this week’s European Tour event in Dubai before be plays the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for the first time. Having recovered from a rib injury late last summer, McIlroy, who like Day didn’t win anywhere in the world in 2017, has more golf on tap than usual this time of the year. He has said he wanted to play more while he prepares for Augusta, the missing piece for a career Grand Slam.
McIlroy, too, kicked his longtime caddie to the curb last fall. J.P. Fitzgerald, who has worked for McIlroy since the Northern Irishman became a professional, has been replaced by McIlroy’s best friend, Harry Diamond, for the foreseeable future.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson and No. 3 Jordan Spieth also will be in the field at Pebble Beach. Spieth is the defending champion, and Johnson has won twice at Pebble. And just so you know, Mickelson is a four-time winner at the AT&T.
Woods will play the next week at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles, a tournament in which he hasn’t competed since 2006. It’s the place where he received his first sponsor’s exemption, as a 16-year-old high-schooler. But he has not won at Riviera, although he finished second there twice. Woods tends to play only in events and on courses where he has had past success.
To boot, Johnson is the defending champion at the Genesis Open.
All of which means that the normally strong field at the following week’s Honda Classic – the typical start of the Florida Swing – could suffer. Not only because of the top players on the West Coast but because the WGC Mexico Championship is the week after the Honda, and the stars are expected to compete in Mexico City.
While we’ve been accustomed to a fairly lazy start to each calendar year for the past few seasons, many of the top players are jumping into the PGA Tour with both feet. That fact can’t help but be a good thing for players, fans and sponsors alike.
For the first time in years, the West Coast really matters. With three former major-championship courses on the rotation – Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Riviera – those events finally will get the fields they deserve.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf