LA QUINTA, Calif. – Brendan Steele received two priceless pieces of mail this offseason: invitations to his first Masters and … the Humana Challenge.
The letter from Augusta National, the result of winning last year’s Valero Texas Open, fulfilled a childhood dream. What was so special about the invitation to the Humana? It was hand-signed by a former president, Bill Clinton. Steele plans to frame both mementos.
The personal letter from Clinton was a nice touch, but it wasn’t necessary to persuade Steele to play the new-look Humana, formerly the Bob Hope Classic. The Humana is a hometown event for Steele, who grew up about an hour away, in Idyllwild, Calif. He attended the event as a kid, as did his caddie and teammate at UC Riverside, Nick Wilkins. Wilkins walked the back nine of David Duval’s historic 59 here in 1999.
Clinton’s support has persuaded plenty of other PGA Tour players to make a stop in the California desert, though. The tournament’s full name is the Humana Challenge in partnership with The Clinton Foundation. Clinton hosted a health-and-wellness conference Tuesday and is scheduled to play Saturday with Greg Norman. Clinton’s presence is just one reason things are looking up for this longtime Tour stop.
There are four top-25 players at this year’s Humana – Dustin Johnson (No. 8 in the Official World Golf Ranking), Matt Kuchar (11), Phil Mickelson (15) and Bill Haas (24). Kuchar, ranked 13th at last year’s event, was the only top-25 player in the 2011 field. There are 12 top-50 players in this year’s field, compared with six in 2011.
This week’s winner will receive 44 world-ranking points (barring any WDs), the most thus far this PGA Tour season. Jhonattan Vegas received 32 points for his win at last year’s event.
“The president has had a big impact on it,” Steele said. “He’s able to get guys really excited about (the tournament).”
It’s a less romantic storyline, but changes to the Humana’s format also have played a large role in the tournament’s improved field.
The event has been reduced from 90 to 72 holes. Three courses – the adjacent Nicklaus Private and Palmer Private courses at PGA West, and La Quinta Country Club – are in use instead of four. Gone are some of the controversial courses that drove past participants from the Hope. A new pro-am format puts two pros and two amateurs in each group, instead of one pro and three amateurs.
“The format changes are huge,” Steele said, “because you almost had to pick before if you were going to play Sony or play here, because you have to take a red-eye Sunday night from Sony, you’re a zombie on Monday and you’re playing on Wednesday.”
The commute from the Sony Open to the Humana is one of the PGA Tour’s toughest. A Clinton Foundation official told Golfweek that the organization is considering chartering a commercial jet from Honolulu to Palm Springs. It seems the 42nd president may know someone who could give the event a good price. Who knew?
Many players got to the Humana by taking 5 1/2-hour, red-eye flights from Honolulu. Some landed in Los Angeles, then fought L.A.’s morning traffic to make the 145-mile drive to La Quinta. The bleary-eyed players arrived in La Quinta by midday Monday.
In previous years, they had to cram in as many practice rounds as possible before Wednesday’s first round, or play courses blindly. The tournament now starts Thursday, giving players one extra day to prepare for one less course.
Scott Stallings, a PGA Tour rookie in 2011, crammed 54 holes of practice into the day-and-a-half between his arrival in La Quinta and the tournament’s Wednesday start. He said he felt “awful” by the time the tournament started. The eve of last year’s Hope was the only day in 2011 during which Stallings had to play 36 practice holes. And then five rounds awaited.
“It’s way better,” Stallings said of this year’s format.
That seems to be the general consensus.