News & Opinion

Best of the West? It’s Phoenix, by a longneck

Ranking the 5 stops on the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing is as easy as finding a frosty beverage in Scottsdale, so let the party start

The PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing kicked off this week after two weeks to start the new year in Hawaii. I’ve always counted those events as part of the West Coast Swing. So as not to screw up my theme with facts, let’s pretend nothing ever happened in Hawaii (not counting the birth of a certain recent president).

This week’s event has been rebranded as The American Express. My gut reaction is to ask, The American Express What? Open? Invitational? Championship? Derby? Pub Crawl? None of the above. Just the corporate title. Fine. Well, the corporate title brings golf to Palm Springs, Calif. After two weeks of wind and rain squalls in Hawaii, tour players usually are ready for Palm Springs and its typical calm conditions and low scoring.

I like the West Coast Swing, so I’m offering you my power rankings on where the West Coast events stand – according to me, not by any scientific methods using actual data. Your list may be different, of course, but that probably means you’re wrong.

Waste Management Phoenix Open 2018
Tournament officials intend to admit spectators to the par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale for the PGA Tour's Phoenix Open in early February, but don't expect anything like the usual stadium hoopla this year.

1. Waste Management Phoenix Open: This is the biggest, wildest – “Woo-hoo!” – party on tour. The 200,000 or so fans that show up Saturday – “Yeah! Rick-EEEEE!” – at TPC Scottsdale just about equal the numbers that attend other tournaments for the entire week. The WMPO is the real blueprint for – “Phil! PHILLL! Over here!!” – stadium golf. The par-3 16th hole, known as The Colosseum, is golf’s loudest – “Tip your cap! Tip your cap! Tip your cap!... Yayyyy!” – hole and proud of it. Do the fans ever cross the line and become – “Boooooo! You suck!!” – a distraction? Certainly not.

Also overlooked is the exciting finish. The 15th is a dangerous but reachable par 5, the 16th is – “Patrick!! Where’s your shovel?!” – intimidatingly noisy, the 17th is a dangerous but drivable par 4 and 18 has water left and fairway bunkers right. You can play the last four holes in 6 under and – “Bubba!! I wanna ride the General Lee!!” – you can play them in 6 over.

Memorable moment: Fans rolled a large rock, or a small boulder, out of the way so Woods could play a shot from the desert in 1999.

2. AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am: The weather is often lousy. The pace of play is tedious, since this is the only event left on tour where amateurs play with the pros, some for all four rounds.

But come on, there is no better place to be a golf spectator. You can walk 18 holes at Pebble Beach, American golf’s most spectacular setting. Standing on the headland where the sixth green sits out in the open, next to the famed seventh tee, you feel as if you’re standing on top of the world.

It gets better. The tournament uses three courses. Spyglass Hill is part of the rotation, and its first six holes are gloriously full of sand dunes and ice plant, then it heads inland and becomes less interesting and contrived in spots. I remember rushing out to Spyglass in the early ’90s because famous business czar Donald Trump made a hole-in-one. When he saw a group of writers approach, he couldn’t wait to tell us about his heroic shot – while he was still playing his round! – and also emphasize how much his then significant other, Marla Maples, loved him. It was hilarious, awkward and telling all at the same time.

Monterey Peninsula Country Club is the third part of the tournament rotation, and it might be the third best course on the peninsula. Cypress Point and Pebble can fight it out for first.

Memorable moment: In 1987, Clint Eastwood, Greg Norman and Peter Jacobsen risked life and limb to form a human chain to hold up Jack Lemmon so he could successfully play a cliffside shot back to the fairway at Cypress Point’s 16th hole – and then Lemmon shanked the next shot into the ocean.

3. Farmers Insurance Open: This may be No. 1 on your list for the simple reason that Tiger Woods will be playing. For casual fans, and even some regulars, the season doesn’t start until Tiger starts. Technically, this season started last year and we’re already 13 tournaments into it. But here comes Tiger, so…

Most of Torrey’s recent history involves Woods. Why wouldn’t it? He won this event seven times, and he captured the 2008 U.S. Open there in a 19-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate. And Woods won the Junior Worlds there six times. That’s 14 wins. Just from the sheer volume, it’s hard to remember anything else that’s happened at Torrey Pines.

The South Course is a beauty, but the finishing hole always has stuck in my craw. The 18th is a reachable par 5 guarded by a pond. Contrived hazards are so commonplace in golf that sometimes it’s easy to forget that Torrey Pines is atop a cliff; a pond has as much business being there as an igloo. It makes the hole dramatic because, even worse, the tournament committee takes the worst page out of the Masters playbook and shaves the bank in front of the green, giving golfers a chance to hit shots pin high and spin them back into the water, or putt one into the pond from above the pin. It’s exciting, yes, but is it golf? Your call.

The South Course used to favor big hitters, but now that everyone’s a big hitter, it could be wide open. Unless, of course, Woods wins again.

Memorable moment: Kyle Stanley needed a double bogey on the final hole to win the 2012 edition but spun his approach off the green into the lake, made triple and lost an agonizing playoff (but rallied to win in Phoenix the next week).

4. Genesis Invitational: Riviera Country Club has a lot going for it. It has remained surprisingly resistant to scoring despite the fact that everybody and his brother and his brother’s kid drives it 310 yards. Chipping around the greens out of the grabby kikuyu grass is like trying to guess a lottery number. And the greens have just enough subtle break to be semi-baffling. How strong is Riviera? Woods hasn’t won here, although he had a memorably hot stretch in last year’s event before finishing 15th.

History falls out of the trees here like winter leaves. The iconic clubhouse overlooking the course in the ravine below still gives this place a 1950s feel.

There isn’t a course in America that is designed better. It, too, is one of the best courses to walk, and its layout allows observers to jump around quickly to other holes. And yes, that uphill par-4 18th hole is a mean little mother.

Memorable moment: In 2007, Rich Beem aced the par-3 14th hole, then ran over to an adjacent display and climbed onto the roof of the red Nissan sports car that he’d just won for the feat.

5. The American Express: The artist formerly known as the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic has yet another new sponsor – thanks for everything, Workday, Humana and the Clinton Foundation – but rolls on.

Palm Springs has been a traditional PGA Tour stop for 60 years. The tournament has gotten away from its multi-course pro-am format, which might help attract better fields. There have been some good winners over the years, including Jon Rahm, Phil Mickelson and Bill Haas, and a lot of new faces, too. Give yourself bonus points if you remember who won last year … it was former Duke University player Adam Long.

Memorable moment: Arnold Palmer sank a 7-foot putt on the final green to beat Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller by two to win in 1973, his 62nd and final PGA Tour victory.