Things looking up for Bob Hope Classic

Matt Kuchar during the 2011 Sony Open.

Matt Kuchar during the 2011 Sony Open.

LA QUINTA, Calif. – When Matt Kuchar arrived at last year’s Bob Hope Classic, he was still known best as the former amateur star looking to fulfill his potential. Now, he’s the Hope’s headline attraction.

Kuchar, the PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 2010, is displayed on billboards along Interstate 10 that read “Classic ... Super Star.”

“It was an incredible year,” Kuchar said.

Seven of the top 20 earners on last year’s money list are in this year’s Hope field, four more than last year. Kuchar is the first player in five years to play the Hope after finishing in the top five of the previous year’s money list (Phil Mickelson, 2006).

This week’s winner is scheduled to earn 34 Official World Golf Ranking points, four more than last year. By comparison, the winner in Abu Dhabi this week is scheduled to earn 56 points.

This is the new reality for the Hope. Its days of attracting headliners may be over, but things at least are looking up.

“(The Hope) presents a great opportunity for the young players to win, because they’re willing to play,” said one player manager. “The guys who’ve won there recently have turned into good players.”

Many of the top players in this year’s field have found success here before, and have remained loyal to the event as their careers have blossomed. Charley Hoffman, the 2007 Hope champ, is here as the recent winner of a FedEx Cup playoff event. Bill Haas won last year’s Hope for his first career title, then added the Viking Classic months later. He finished 20th on last year’s money list.

Last year’s Hope was a catalyst to career years for several of its top finishers. Kuchar, Tim Clark and Bubba Watson all tied for second, one stroke behind Haas. Kuchar and Watson made their first Ryder Cup teams. Clark and Watson won their first PGA Tour titles. Clark’s victory came at The Players.

The improvements in the Hope’s field would seem to bode well for “designated events,” the PGA Tour policy designed to help weaker events get top players in their fields. Instead of becoming mandatory, the event was made voluntary at the end of last year.

But while the top players in the Hope field should be commended for their continued support of this event, “designated events” asked players to enter an event that they hadn’t played recently. All seven of the top-20 money winners in the Hope field played last year.

“My conversations with players at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and Sony Open in Hawaii have been positive regarding (designated events),” PGA Tour chief of operations Andy Pazder said. “It’s much too early in the season to ascertain the effectiveness of the voluntary nature of this program but I’m very optimistic that we’ll see examples throughout the year of players adjusting their schedules.

“This is not a sprint to a solution, rather a marathon. The effort’s success will not hinge on one or two tournaments in the first quarter but more on the overall results from the season. The time to evaluate the success of the voluntary program will be at the end of the year and not at the beginning.”

The quick turnaround from the Sony Open is one reason more top players don’t play the Hope. After the 36-hole finish at the Sony, many players took a red-eye flight, and arrived in Los Angeles at about 5 a.m. Monday. From there, many made the three-hour drive to the Palm Springs area.

Kuchar made the trip. In fact, he’s one of just a handful of players here that is playing the Hope after playing both Hawaii events. His presence shows it’s possible if players make the effort.

Players don’t just skip the Hope to chase riches in the Middle East. Some don’t like the four-course, five-round format. Others don’t like playing alongside amateurs for four days.

There’s also the fact that there needs to be a weak link among the PGA Tour’s events on the West Coast, and the Hope has been relegated to that position. Many players enjoy starting their season in Hawaii, for obvious reasons. Torrey Pines usually draws Tiger and Phil; their presence gives that event all the star power it needs, and lures other top players.

The Phoenix Open draws players with its unique party atmosphere. Pebble Beach is, well, Pebble Beach, and has upgraded its field since replacing Poppy Hills with Monterey Peninsula Country Club. The Northern Trust Open has quickly turned into a world-class event.

And it’s rare for a top player to skip the free money and unique format at the WGC-Match Play.

PGA Tour members can’t play them all. Many of them have chosen to make the Hope their week off, for the reasons listed above.

But more players who first came to the Hope as fresh-faced youngsters have remained loyal to the event, even as they’ve ascended pro golf’s hierarchy. That bodes well for the event.

“It’s just great weather,” Watson said. “You got good greens, you got good golf courses in great shape. So why would you not want to start your year out here?”

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