Career Builder Challenge Preview, Picks & Analysis
HUDSON SWAFFORD returns to the Stadium Course at PGA West, California, to defend his Career Builder Challenge title, and the one certainty is that if he is to have any chance of winning again then he is going to have go low. Very low. When Patrick Reed took the title in 2014 he did sop with a 72-hole total of 260, making birdies and eagles for fun. This is despite the fact that the course, which was designed by Pete Dye, measures 7,300 yards and has been voted the fourth-toughest layout in the United States.
Last year, Adam Hadwin became the latest man to shoot a 59, achieving the feat during the third round on the way to finishing second to Swafford. For the winner, it was a defining moment in his career, giving him his first win at the age of 29 and a two-year exemption. And he did it in style after three-putting the first hole.
He was tied for the lead after birdies at the seventh, eighth and ninth holes, and then took control with further gains at the 15th, 16th and 17th holes. Dye once wrote that he considered the finishing holes at PGA West to be the toughest he has ever designed - and this from the man who was responsible for the fearsome Kiawah Island! He wrote: “It’s a hang-on-to-your–hat time when you turn back toward the clubhouse.” Swafford made the final four holes look easy. He hit an eight iron to 11 feet at the 15th, the course’s second-hardest hole, then hit the 16th green in two shots with a four iron and another eight iron at the island-green 17th stopped within a couple feet of the hole to give him a tap-in birdie.The field averaged 15.98 strokes on the Stadium Course’s final four holes on the final day, but Swafford played them in 13 strokes.
Many thought that he would kick on after getting his maiden victory under his belt but he followed his win with three successive missed cuts, going on to miss nine in total throughout the season, including a run of four in a row from the Players Championship. He said that the win lifted a huge amount of pressure from his shoulders, knowing that he had secured his playing privileges and being able to pick and choose where he wanted to play but perhaps he also lost a little motivation.
Swafford missed the cut at The Masters, failed to make the field for either the US Open or The Open and also failed to reach the weekend at the US PGA Championship, which was won by Justin Thomas. But this is a new year and he will hope that a return to the scene of his finest moment to date will bring back some good memories and allow him to challenge again.
Once known as the Bob Hope Classic, it used to be played over 90 holes, being reduced to the traditional 72-hole format in 2012. Like the AT&T, the tournament also features a host of “celebrities”, which can provide unique distractions that some players struggle to cope with. Jhonattan Vegas was the last 90-hole winner in 2011, it was won in 2012 by Mark Wilson, in 2013 by Brian Gay, by Reed in 2014, Bill Haas in 2015, Jason Dufner is 2016 and by Swafford 12 months ago.
Haas also won in 2010 and has a runners-up spot to his credit, and will be relishing a return to one of his favourite venues. He is one of the most underrated players on the PGA Tour, with seven victories to his name and almost $30m in prize money. The thing that stands out about his game is his remarkable consistency. In 2017 he played in 25 tournaments, missing just five cuts. There were no wins, but he reeled off 12 top 25 finishes and almost $3m in earnings, eventually finishing 35th in the FedEx Cup standings. He is the son of Jay Haas, a stalwart of the tour for almost 30 years who is still enjoying plenty of success on the Champions Tour.
Hadwin’s 59 signalled the start of a marvellous run of form that led to the Canadian winning his first tournament and producing a string of terrific results as he went from strength to strength throughout the year. Graham DeLaet was expected to be the next big thing from Canada but he has failed to turn top-10 finishes into a victory and the longer he goes without that first win the harder it seems to become for him. Hadwin is a different kettle of fish. He looks totally comfortable in this company and is a golfer who could easily go on to become a major champion – he loves playing in the wind and could be a decent each-way bet for The Open at Carnoustie in July. Back in the here and now, however, he returns to a course that he admits is one of his favourites and says that he is looking forward to trying to go one better than he did last time.
Look out, too, for Emiliano Grillo, regarded by his peers as one of the most gifted players on the planet. Like fellow countryman Angel Cabrera, Grillo is a long hitter and also possesses a magical touch on and around the greens. He has battled to find consistency but there is a belief within the game that when he works out how to score when playing below his best that he could become a serial winner. He has come close here in the past, and this just might be where he kick-starts his season.
It may also be time for Jonas Blixt to produce another big week. The Swede has spent so much time in the United States that he now speaks with an American accent. Having learned his game in Scandinavia, he has easily adapted to the soft conditions that are so perfect for the target golf we see week in, week out on the PGA Tour. Like Grillo, Blixt struggles to play well on a consistent basis, which is difficult to understand when you watch him swing a golf club.
Another former champion who will return to California in good heart is Dufner, who has stated that he wants to be a member of Jim Furyk’s Ryder Cup team later this year. If Dufner can keep on top of his putting woes he can win anywhere and, as a former winner on this course, he will return to California in good heart. If he is serious about making there plane to Paris then he needs to start producing some big weeks.
Patrick Reed. Desperate to get his game back on track
Jon Rahm. Will be there or thereabouts
Phil Mickelson. Crowd favourite
Patrick Reed. Has much to prove in 2018
Jon Rahm. In contention every time he plays
Phil Mickelson. Would dearly love to start winning again
Zach Johnson. Mr Consistent
Charles Howell III. One of these weeks, he will win again
Jonas Blixt. Swede who has failed to live up to expectations, but great ball striker
Stewart Cink. Showing signs of form that won him The Open
Emiliano Grillo. At his best he can win anywhere
Bill Haas. Ready for a big week
Patton Kizzire. Has finally arrived in the big time
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