The year’s first PGA Tour event on the mainland U.S. gets underway in California this week for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Marking the start of a month-long West Coast Swing, CareerBuilder has attracted one of the most competitive field’s it’s seen in years. Even with a collection of giant names electing to play overseas in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, CareerBuilder still boasts 11 of the top-50 players in the OWGR and 12 of the top-25 players in the FedExCup Playoffs rankings.
World No. 3 Jon Rahm, tournament ambassador Phil Mickelson, and reigning champion Hudson Swafford headline the 156 player field. U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup star Patrick Reed, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, and the season’s first multiple winner Patton Kizzire, fresh off his marathon playoff win at the Sony Open last week, will also be there.
Since CareerBuilder features Pro-Am play along with tournament play for the first 54 holes, three different courses are used for the first three rounds: TPC Stadium Course at PGA West (host course), the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West, and the La Quinta Country Club. Players will compete on each course once over the first three days. After the 54-hole cut, the remaining low 70 professionals and ties get another crack at The Stadium Course on Sunday.
The 7,300, par-72 Pete Dye-designed TPC Stadium Course is the most difficult course of the troika. However, players usually tear up all three tracks, and 63s and 64s are out there for the taking. The average winning score at CareerBuilder is 26-under par over the last nine years, so players will need to hit a high percentage of greens to give themselves enough birdie looks to keep up with the leaders. Strokes Gained: Tee to Green will be the single most important factor in deciding a winner.
The Nicklaus Tournament Course is forgiving off the tee but demanding around the greens. Playing at 7,204 yards, this par-72 track is a true ball-strikers course offering up a great mix of longer and shorter holes. Putting surfaces feature a variety of shapes, depths, and undulations that will thoroughly test the players’ short game arsenal.
La Quinta Country Club is the flattest and shortest of the three courses, playing at just 7,060 yards. Accuracy off the tee will take precedence over distance on this par-72 track. Immaculate Bermuda grass greens roll true without much trickery and are considered among the finest putting surfaces on Tour. A massive outburst of birdies is a near certainty ever year on La Quinta, particularly on the four par-5s.
Noteworthy Holes (TPC Stadium Course)
The 560-yard, par-5 16th hole is nicknamed San Andreas Fault because of the relentless bunkering that spans the entire left side. An obscenely deep, 20-foot bunker protects the left side of the green and will inflict catastrophic misery on all. There’s no bail out the other way, as oppressive mounding and out-of-bounds protects the entire right side. Some players will reach No. 16 with two perfectly placed drives and approach shots, but historically it’s one of the most treacherous holes on the course.
The 17th hole, known as “Alcatraz”
There is no escape on the 165-yard, par-3, 17th hole nicknamed Alcatraz. Hitting from an elevated tee, it’s a true island green similar in style to No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass. When the wind picks up it can be a tricky and alarming target to hit – especially under pressure. Because the putting surface is so small, there’s a good chance for birdie if players can stick it anywhere on the green. Chipping out from the rocks is also a good skill to have here, just ask 2016 CareerBuilder champion, Jason Dufner.
A drive down the right-center of the fairway on the 435-yard, par-4 closing hole is the ideal position off the tee. Players shouldn’t allow this relatively stress-free first shot on No. 18 to lull them into a false sense of security, however. The green is thoroughly protected by water on the left, and mounds of bunkers on the right. Any mid-iron approach to the green needs to be precise for a good look at birdie. The putting surface is long but narrow, and guarded in the back by a bunker enclosed by rocks.
Players to Watch
Despite being ranked 16th on Tour in Birdie Average, Ollie Schniederjans has only one top-10 finish to show for it in five starts this season. The problem for Schniederjans has been sabotaging his gaudy upside with mistakes that he normally doesn’t make. He’s ranked 124th on Tour in Bogey Avoidance, and 165th in Greens in Regulation. However, CareerBuilder’s triplet of courses won’t cause Ollie the same kinds of problems on approach that he’s had on other courses this year. These desert greens are easy to hit, and that should give Schniederjans a major boost in confidence. Schniederjans in on the cusp of his first Tour victory, and I see him in contention on Sunday and finishing top-5.
Jason Dufner is quietly starting to flash some of that ball-striking form that made him champion here in 2016. Dufner’s coming off two consecutive top-20 finishes, and he’s even gaining strokes on the field with his putter – something he’s rarely known to do. CareerBuilder is an event that rewards birdie-makers and Duf Daddy has been mediocre at best in that regard this season. The wily veteran is ranked 99th on Tour in Birdie Average and 167th in Scoring Average. If Dufner’s putter cools off he’s at risk of missing the cut this week, and I see him finishing outside the top-25.
Brian Harman has to be on your radar. Harman’s pumped out six consecutive top-8 finishes to start the new season, including four top 4’s and he’s striking the ball extremely well right now. Brian’s 5th on Tour in Greens in Regulation, 6th in Strokes Gained: Total, and 8th in Scoring Average. Harman’s one of the shorter hitters off the tee on Tour, but his precision iron game and excellent putting are a perfect match for success at CareerBuilder. Brian’s had a bit of trouble around the greens from the sand, ranked 104th on Tour in Sand Save Percentage. As long as Harman doesn’t give too many shots back from the bunkers, his current form should put him in the winner’s circle this week.