After a berserk weekend in Hawaii, where terror panic and a labor dispute stole the thunder of its winner, Patton Kizzire, the PGA Tour comes back to the U.S. mainland for the CareerBuilder Challenge.
One of the more intriguing setups on Tour, the CareerBuilder is played at PGA West in La Quinta, California, on three courses over the first three rounds – TPC Stadium, Nicklaus Course, and La Quinta CC, after which the top 70 players get a second crack at the Stadium course in a Sunday finale.
1. PHIL’S 2018 DEBUT
With Tiger Woods making his much anticipated return from injury at next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, Phil Mickelson gets to enjoy being the most popular player on Tour for one more week. The proud 47-year-old Californian is set to make his 2018 debut at La Quinta in front of a fawning home state public.
Despite being an age where 99% of his competitors are considered prodigiously past their prime, Mickelson is much more than a tournament figurehead and attraction: he is still really, really good, and is legitimately among the favorites to take the CareerBuilder crown.
Technically, Mickelson has won this tournament twice, in 2002 and 2004, when the event was known as the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, but the tournament of today would be completely unrecognizable to the tournament of the early 2000s, which was a five-round marathon, so those victories might not hold much weight for the 2018 version of Mickelson.
That being said, his recent history and current form still paint the picture of a prime threat for the million dollar payday. Last year, Mickelson opened 68-66 on his way to a T21, one year after a T3 finish in 2016.
This will be Phil’s third event of the new wrap-around season, but his first action in nearly three months. In his other two 2017-18 events, he posted a T3 at the Safeway Open and a T15 at the WGC-HSBC Champions.
2. JON RAHM: CLASS OF ONE?
If Mickelson is going to finish atop the CareerBuilder leaderboard and finally put an end to his notorious winless streak that stretches all the way back to the 2013 Open Championship, he is going to have to conquer an enormous obstacle: World No. 3 Jon Rahm.
Over the past year, the precocious 23-year-old Rahm has consistently asserted himself among the absolute best golfers in the world. In his 2017 PGA Tour season, his first full season on Tour, Rahm captured top 10 finishes in an incredible 11 of the 23 events he entered, including a win at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, two other runner-ups, two other third places.
It was not just American courses he was lighting up, however. Rahm also won twice in Europe in 2017: a six-shot romp at the Irish Open, and a convincing victory at the DP World Tour Championship in late November.
It went a little under the radar because Dustin Johnson thoroughly subjugated the field at the Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago, but the best non-DJ performance at Kapalua came from Rahm, who used a 66-69 weekend to nip Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama and capture the runner-up honors.
3. SWAFFORD DEFENDS
At last year’s CareerBuilder Challenge, Hudson Swafford used three late Sunday birdies (15, 16, and 17) to emerge from a talented logjam and hold off Adam Hadwin, who had 13 birdies in his Saturday 59, by one stroke for the title. It was the first victory of the then 29-year-old Georgia product’s career.
Swafford did most of his La Quinta damage before the weekend, culling a big lead with a pair of opening 65s.
The win was career-changing, but in the 12 months since, Swafford has largely struggled to rediscover that winning form. He missed his first three cuts after the victory, and then later endured a four-start stretch of missed-cuts.
A solo-sixth place finish at the Shell Houston Open was his best result after becoming a PGA Tour winner. He also added T10s at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Swafford has been mostly nondescript in the new season. He’s entered six events, and while he made the cut in all six, he failed to break the top 25 in any of them. He split three finishes apiece in the 20s (T28, T29, T27) and the 50s (T54, T50, T54).
If the 6’3” Swafford is able to successfully defend at PGA West, he would fit the 2018 trend of vertically-gifted champions.
4. HEAT CHECK: PATTON KIZZIRE
Without a doubt, the breakout star of the new PGA Tour season has been FedExCup leader Patton Kizzire.
The towering 31-year-old Kizzire captured career victory No. 1 two months ago, when he outlasted a much-favored Rickie Fowler over the final 36 holes at the OHL Classic in Mayakoba.
Endurance was key again when Kizzire nabbed season (and career) win No. 2 at last week’s Sony Open. He showed a penchant for clutch putting in an exhausting six-hole playoff win over James Hahn.
Kizzire finished T50 at last year’s CareerBuilder challenge, but with a first-round 65, he proved that he can go low in La Quinta. With his recent form, he should be one of the most feared in the field.
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