The American Express Preview, Picks & Analysis
GOLF is a funny old game. One minute you can’t hit a barn door with your driver and you couldn’t hole a putt if the cup was 12 inches wide. And then, for no apparent reason, it all comes together. Just ask Adam Long, who prepares to defend his American Express title this week. The tournament is perhaps better known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic, and it has boasted some world-class winners over the years. With all due respect, Long would admit that he does not fall into that category.
When he teed it up last year it was his sixth PGA Tour start - in his previous five he was a combined 20 over par. So how is it possible that, from nowhere, he shot 26-under-par 262 over the tournament’s three courses. He shot a 63 in the first and third rounds, then fired a 65 that was Sunday’s second-lowest score on PGA West’s tricky Stadium Course. Long, who started the final round three shots behind Phil Mickelson, chipped in twice on the back nine and didn’t make a bogey.
“I just kept plugging away and it was kind of the Phil and Adam Hadwin show for most of the way,” Long said. “Everyone was chanting Phil’s name most of the way and there are a lot of Canadians down here. I was just in the background.”
Even Long wasn’t certain where he stood after hitting his approach into the final hole. Winning wasn’t at the top of his agenda when he teed off in Sunday’s final group with Mickelson and Hadwin. A top-10 finish, and a spot in the next week’s event, would have been enough for him. Long was a 31-year-old rookie and he ended up winning in sensational style, holing a 15-foot birdie putt on the final green. He had come to the 18th tied with Hadwin and Mickelson. After hitting his drive into the right rough, Long struck his 175-yard approach onto the green. That’s when he asked his caddie to confirm that he shared the lead. “I wasn’t 100% sure. I didn’t care. I had nothing to lose,” Long said.
The stage was set for him after Hadwin’s bunker shot stopped inches from the hole and Mickelson missed a long birdie try. Mickelon’s miss helped Long see the line for his career-changing putt. His 65th stroke of the day found the bottom of the hole. It meant he banked a cheque for more than $1m, earned a full two-year exemption and secured his place in such pretty lucrative events. It was a massive week for him. He started it ranked 205th in the FedEx Cup standings after a previous best finish of tied 63rd at the Safeway Open.
“He hit shot after shot and putted great, had a couple chip-ins and did what you had to do to win,” said Mickelson.
Hadwin was still three shots ahead after Long’s chip-in on the 12th hole. Hadwin played the final six holes in one over, though, while Long birdied half of the remaining holes. He holed a five-footer for a birdie on 14 before holing another chip on the next hole. Then he birdied the last hole, an incredible finish for a player who admitted that just receiving the text with his final-round tee time gave him nerves.
Long didn’t look intimidated, though, when he birdied the opening two holes.“Birdieing those first two really calmed a bit, like, ‘All right, I got this, I can compete, I can play, I belong,” Long said. He’d spent nine years as a professional waiting for this moment. His only start before last season came at the 2011 U.S. Open. That was the same year that he won his only previous professional title, the Woodcreek Classic on the now-defunct Hooters Tour. He estimates that the winner’s check was $25,000. He played his first Web.com Tour season the following year but finished 127th on the money list. He didn’t get back on that tour until 2015. He never doubted that he could make it, though.
“I wasn’t doing great, but I never really doubted it,” he said. ”I still wanted to play and I still loved it and I still wanted to see how good I could get.”
It is fair to say that he hasn’t really kicked on, but his victory proved how quickly things can change. Long went on to miss 13 cuts, including five in a row after his victory. But the new season has been a different story. Long has regrouped, has yet to miss a cut and finished second at the Mayakoba Classic. He has already banked $1m and cannot wait to defend his title.
(Rickie Fowler is among the favourites)
It was won in 2014 by Patrick Reed, in 2015 by Bill Haas, in 2016 by Jason Dufner, in 2017 by Hudson Swafford, in 2018 by Jon Rahm and last year by Long.
And Long is joined by a top-class field, including Ben An, Abraham Ancer and Sungjae Im, who were all members of the International team at the Presidents Cup. Im was the PGA Tour rookie of the year last season and was a star of Ernie Els’ team that lost to the USA in December, scoring 3.5 points. Ancer also contributed 3.5 points to the cause, although he was soundly beaten in the final-day singles by Tiger Woods. Others who have committed to play include past champions Haas, Dufner and Swafford, along with Paul Casey, Francesco Molinari, the big-hitting Matt Wolff, Rickie Fowler and Tony Finau.
The courses are pretty generous, with little punishing rough. So look out for the likes of Wolff, Finau and Casey to be there or thereabouts.
American Express Picks & Tips
Rickie Fowler. Made for him
Paul Casey. Fabulous ball striker
Tony Finau. Really impressive specimen
American Express Fantasy Picks
Rickie Fowler. This is a big year for Fowler
Paul Casey. As fit as anybody out there
Tony Finau. Brilliant driver of the ball
Francesco Molinari. One of the best iron players on the planet
Matt Wolff. This guy is LONG. Really long
Phil Mickelson. There is life in the old dog yet
Abraham Ancer. Hugely talented Mexican
Ben An. Fantastic temperament
Sungjae Im. Could be a superstar
Hudson Swafford. Streaky player
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