Martin: Humana Challenge shows progress
Monday, January 23, 2012
LA QUINTA, Calif. – Even the hardest cynic would have a hard time criticizing what happened last week in La Quinta. Yes, the removal of Bob Hope’s name from the tournament title is a sore spot, but the PGA Tour’s stop in the California desert has found new life with a new title sponsor and the support of a former president.
The Humana Challenge’s biggest improvement? The quality of its field. The Humana Challenge’s biggest challenge? Further improving, even retaining, the quality of its field.
Attracting more stars is a difficult task. The Humana has to compete with its West Coast neighbors and the Middle East’s appearance money. Getting those big names is important, though, for it will help the tournament achieve its off-course goals.
“It all revolves around players,” said Greg Norman, who played the Humana on Clinton’s request. “Once you have the name players coming in, then you have the sponsors. ... Then the sponsors get their TV ratings and when you get your TV ratings, people feel like it's worth the dollars that they have invested. And you get the players there and you're going to have the support of the local community. So it's a trickle-down effect.”
This year’s Humana Challenge featured four players ranked in the top 25 of the Official World Golf Ranking – Dustin Johnson (No. 8), Matt Kuchar (11), Phil Mickelson (15) and Bill Haas (24). It was only two years ago that Mike Weir, then ranked 37th in the world, was the field’s highest-ranked player.
The appearances of Johnson and Mickelson were especially important because both had been absent from the past few Humanas. Johnson, who hadn’t played the event since 2009, was the tournament’s first top-10 player since Mickelson in 2007. That was Mickelson’s last appearance before this year.
The Humana has to find a way to keep such players loyal. It has lots of competition, though.
Each week on the West Coast swing brings a unique benefit. The Hyundai is a winner’s-only privilege with a guaranteed purse. The Sony Open has Hawaii. Torrey Pines has a big-time feel; it’s often where Tiger Woods and Mickelson make their season debut (Woods is playing this week in Abu Dhabi instead). There’s the classic courses at Pebble Beach and Riviera, and the party in Phoenix. And then there’s the season’s first World Golf Championship.
That’s not to say the Humana is without benefits. Its low rough and soft greens are forgiving for players still shaking off the winter’s rust.
“If you like good weather and low scores, come here,” said Steve Jones, the 1989 Hope champion. Whether more players do so, especially the game’s big names, remains to be seen.