Absent from the U.S. mainland for two months, the PGA Tour makes its annual stop this week in La Quinta, California for the first stop of the West Coast swing, the Desert Classic.
Best known for its affiliation with legendary performer Bob Hope, the Desert Classic is celebrating its 60th edition this week.
Traditionally one of the lowest-scoring events of the PGA Tour season, PGA West tees off with a solid field replete with big names and bigger storylines.
Four of the bigger stories we’re following this week:
1. Rahm Defends Again on the West Coast
Jon Rahm’s victory at last year’s Desert Classic, where he opened with a 62, went bogey-free on Sunday, and defeated an upstart Andrew Landry on a fourth playoff hole, was impressive, but nowhere in the ballpark of unexpected.
Coming into event, the then 23-year-old was ranked third in the world, and his previous two starts resulted in a runner-up at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and a victory at the European Tour’s DP World Tour Championship.
He had won at Torrey Pines the previous season and had already won several times in different parts of the world. He had arrived.
Now, one year later, Rahm is still considered one of professional golf’s premiere players, but suddenly, he finds himself somewhat needing to prove himself again. The win at La Quinta rose him to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and on the periphery of the much-coveted top spot. Something about reaching that high… Rahm was not quite the same after.
That is not to say that the 2018 season was bad for Rahm. He won his national open in Spain, and while he did not add another PGA Tour title, he did place fourth at both The Masters and the PGA Championship. However, he looked much more mortal after reaching No. 2 in the world rankings, and struggled to find consistency.
He made more than $2 million fewer in earnings that he had in 2017, and while he had those two fourth places at majors, he was dismal at the other two, especially at the US Open, where he missed the cut by a mile after shooting rounds of 78 and 77, 15 strokes over par.
More recently, Rahm struggled in the FedExCup playoffs, but appears to have woken up since. At the Ryder Cup, his European team debut, he became the first player to defeat Tiger Woods in Sunday singles since the 90s.
He added further injury to Tiger by winning the Hero World Challenge, Woods’ annual event in The Bahamas. In addition to that victory, his last three starts also include a T4 in his title defense at the DP World Tour Championship and a T8 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii two weeks ago.
Rahm should be comfortable in the Desert Classic spotlight this week, given his immense success in such a short amount of time. Now ranked 7th in the OWGR, he appears determined to continue his recent stretch of good play. This event is traditionally a scoring paradise, and Rahm is one of the best on Tour at going low.
2. A Rose in the Desert
Two players currently in the top 10 of the world rankings are in the Desert Classic field this week. The aforementioned Jon Rahm (7th) is one. The other? No. 1 Justin Rose.
This will be the first time Rose has teed up anywhere in the 2019 calendar year, and the first time he will be competing at La Quinta since he missed the cut at the 2010 event.
Despite not playing the course competitively in nine years, Rose is still the favorite to take the La Quinta crown. Already an accomplished player, the 38-year-old Brit is coming off his best season as a professional yet.
Most prolifically, he won the $10 million FedExCup Championship. His 18 starts on the PGA Tour resulted in 11 top 10s, with two victories and three runner-ups. In addition, he entered four European events, finishing in the top 10 in each, winning one. Those 15 top-10s were a huge part of the reason that he elevated to the No. 1 position in the world rankings for the first time.
Statistically, Rose was also spectacular. He finished second on the PGA Tour in both scoring average and birdie average. He also took the No. 2 ranking in strokes gained: total and was fourth in strokes gained: tee-to-green. Among the six strokes gained categories, Rose’s WORST was his 21st place ranking in putting, which was an impressive 102-spot jump from where he finished in 2017.
More recently, Rose is coming off a FedExCup playoff where he finished 2-2-T4 in the final three events. He scored two points for the winning European side at the Ryder Cup, and won the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open.
Prior to his most recent start, a surprising T17 at the BNI Indonesian Masters, Rose was on a streak of seven straight top 10s, with all but one of those landing in the top 4.
Yeah, he is clearly the favorite this week.
3. Phil Takes On La Quinta
Despite being fewer than two years from Champions Tour eligibility, 48-year-old Phil Mickelson is coming off his best season in some time.
A victory at the WGC-Mexico, where he fought off Justin Thomas in a playoff, was his first win on Tour in five years. He missed just three cuts in 24 events, with 15 of those made weekends resulting in a top-25, and six of those resulting in a top-10. He finished with $4.6 million in earnings and comfortably made it to the FedExCup finale.
That all being said, it is difficult to place Phil’s game as he makes his 2019 calendar year debut in his much-beloved California. Perhaps understandably given his age, Phil, currently 34th in the world rankings, appeared to be running on fumes in the latter part of 2018.
Mickelson has not posted a top 10 since a T5 at the Wells Fargo Championship in early May. He was a complete non-factor at the majors, at least as far as his actual game is concerned (he made a controversial move at the U.S. Open, hitting a moving putt on purpose). He finished dead last at the Tour Championship, and he was an unequivocal disaster at his 12th career Ryder Cup, failing to win a match for the losing U.S. side and getting blasted by Francesco Molinari in Sunday singles.
However, Phil’s last action was a win. In a match 15 years too late, he defeated an also-fatigued and reeling Tiger Woods in the much hyped “The Match” on Thanksgiving weekend. It could end up being great for his confidence, but being an unofficial event, it is difficult to tell whether it will give him any actual momentum.
Phil is a two-time winner of the Desert Classic, but it should probably be noted that those wins came in 2002 and 2004. His recent results at La Quinta have not been quite as good, but he did finish T3 just three years ago, falling just a stroke short of the Jason Dufner – David Lingmerth playoff.
Phil tends to play well this time of year, and especially in his native California. His stellar 2018 season combined with his status as a Tour legend might make him the most intriguing player to watch in this week’s field.
4. Where in the World is Willett?
Perhaps the most surprising name in the field list for this week’s Desert Classic is that of Danny Willett.
Yes, THAT Danny Willlett. The very same man who won The Masters just two years ago in a dramatic comeback over Augusta prodigy Jordan Spieth.
Of course, those not living under rocks know that golf has not been smooth sailing for Willett since acquiring a green jacket. In fact, he absolutely imploded. Largely due to injury, a dismal 2017 season saw just two finishes inside the top 50 in 21 starts. He failed to reach the weekend in 11 of them.
His 2018 season did not start any better, as he made just one cut in his first nine events, a T29 at something called the Tshwane Open.
However, starting in early June, Willett started to show signs of life again. Among a handful of at least decent results, he finished in the top 10 at two Rolex Series events: T8 at the Italian Open and T6 at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
September saw the 31-year-old mostly struggle again, but as the 2018 year ended, he again looked competent. A T7 at the Turkish Airlines Open in early November – another Rolex Series tournament, set the stage for one of the big shockers of the European Tour season: Willett actually won.
At the DP World Tour Championship, an event highlighted by a strong field including Jon Rahm, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, and Xander Schauffele, among others, Willett shot two rounds of 67 and two rounds of 68 to take the title by two strokes.
So, that brings the question, is Willett actually good again? When he tees up at La Quinta, it will be the first time he has played competitively since he landed in the winner’s circle in Dubai two months ago.
The Desert Classic is a surprising event for him to enter, but it could provide an excellent barometer of where his game is heading into his third season post-green jacket.