For all of the changes to the PGA Tour as we knew it – what we thought were elevated events are now officially “designated” events and sadly the voices of Roger Maltbie and Gary Koch have been silenced – one thing hasn’t changed.
The rhythm of the calendar.
Saying aloha to Hawaii means saying hello to California and, while it may be a mainland bias, it feels as if the tour season finds its full footing once it arrives on the West Coast, even if much of the area is storm battered at the moment.
Palm Springs. Torrey Pines. Pebble Beach. The bacchanal in Phoenix. Riv.
This is when the clock starts ticking toward the Masters. A Players Championship and four $20 million designated events line the yellow brick road to Augusta, but the game starts leaning into the first full week of April the way sunflowers lean toward the sun.
The West Coast swing is like a perfect first course, a crabmeat cocktail or a wedge salad smothered in chunky blue cheese, setting everything into motion.
Through the years, the names of the West Coast events have changed, but the feeling remains.
The Bob Hope Desert Classic. The Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. The Andy Williams-San Diego Open Invitational. The Shearson Lehman Hutton Open. The Ben Hogan Open (Phoenix in 1950). The Bing Crosby Pro-Am. The Glen Campbell-Los Angeles Open.
The American Express in Palm Springs can be golf in a dome, movie-set-perfect conditions framed by rocky mountains that tumble to the edge of fairways and birdies by the bushel. Torrey Pines is as brawny as its scenery is beautiful.
Pebble Beach is as familiar as our home courses, and it comes with a celebrity sideshow. Phoenix is a one-off, loudly and proudly like nothing else. For many, it’s a bucket-list tournament experience, and that bucket probably comes with a six-pack iced down.
The week at Riviera for the Genesis Invitational brings it all together, the best players in the world on one of the best courses in the world.
Is the West Coast swing a precursor to what’s coming?
A year ago, Hudson Swafford, Luke List, Tom Hoge, Scottie Scheffler and Joaquin Niemann, respectively, won the five West Coast events.
Swafford and Niemann have moved to LIV; Hoge may still be coping with the disappointment of flying from Hawaii to Los Angeles to see his beloved TCU Horned Frogs get destroyed in the college football national championship against Georgia before flying back to Hawaii; List hasn’t had a top-10 finish since winning; and Scheffler is in a different orbit.
Scheffler is a case study in what this portion of the tour schedule can produce. Until he won in Phoenix on Super Bowl Sunday last year, Scheffler was still on the futures market. He was the big, beautiful house still waiting to be furnished.
Then he won in Phoenix. Then, three weeks later, Arnie’s event at Bay Hill. Then, in three more weeks, the WGC Match Play. Now, he’s working up a champion’s dinner menu to commemorate his victory in the Masters.
Here’s a note on Scheffler, who some may think has tailed off since he hit full boil last spring. In his past six PGA Tour starts, he has finished T3, T2, T45, T3, T9, T7. Not bad for a perceived flat spot.
“In my mind, I feel like since August I’ve been the best player in the world.”
The immediate West Coast attention will focus on Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa, whose trajectories crossed paths on Sunday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Rahm is in the field at the American Express this week (so are Patrick Cantlay, Tony Finau, Tom Kim, Will Zalatoris, Xander Schauffele and Scheffler, proving that non-designated events still can draw big names), and he’s on a bullet train toward the top of the world rankings again.
Perhaps because we haven’t seen Rory McIlroy in a while, but Rahm is the hottest player in the world, with three wins in his past four starts. It’s almost criminal that he beat the field that he did at Kapalua and didn’t move up in the world rankings.
“In my mind, I feel like since August I’ve been the best player in the world,” No. 5 Rahm said after winning at Kapalua.
No one is forming a line to argue against Rahm.
As for Morikawa, a Los Angeles native who played college golf at Cal, he’s taking a second week off after his Maui meltdown and will return at Torrey Pines. Is he damaged goods?
He’s too good to be undone by what happened, even if it was the second time in little more than a year. Morikawa needs to play well enough to change the narrative, and maybe the next time he’s in the lead late, the outcome will be different. Plenty of great players have made a mess on Sundays when they had big leads and they moved on.
It can eat up some players, but Morikawa isn’t one of those players.
By the time the tour gets to Phoenix in early February, the biggest stretch of the year begins. The WM Phoenix Open and the Genesis Invitational are back-to-back designated events and, with a visit to the Honda Classic in between, then the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship, two more designated events, follow immediately.
The four designated events will have a combined purse of $85 million. Players like to say it’s not about the money, but that’s a lot of private jet fuel on the line.
The West Coast swing may never have looked so good.
Top: Scottie Scheffler celebrates defeating Patrick Cantlay in a playoff at the 2022 WM Phoenix Open.
Tracy Wilcox, PGA TOUR via Getty Images