LA QUINTA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson is back after a long layoff. So is PGA West’s TPC Stadium Course.
The 45-year-old Mickelson is making his first start since the Presidents Cup in October, while the Stadium Course is back in the CareerBuilder Challenge rotation after nearly 30 years.
Mickelson also is playing for the first time since splitting with swing coach Butch Harmon to work with Andrew Getson. The 2002 and 2004 champion is winless since the 2013 British Open.
“My last two years have been disappointing to me,” Mickelson said in a story posted by sponsor KPMG. “I want to make this upcoming year one of the best years possible. I’m optimistic, but I’m also nervous because it’s been a little while since I’ve played to the level I expect to.”
Lefty was in high school the only other time the Stadium Course was used in the event.
That was in 1987, a year after the Pete Dye-designed course opened. Dye did his best to satisfy developers Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser when they told him to build “the toughest damn course in the world.”
“Golf is not a fair game, so why build a course fair?” Dye famously said.
The Stadium Course was quickly dropped from the tournament, with pace of play an issue in the event that then had three amateurs — including celebrities — playing alongside one professional the first four days. The course finally got another chance this year when PGA West’s Palmer and Nicklaus private layouts dropped out.
“The course was built to be very demanding and I think even with the equipment improvements it will challenge the professionals,” the 90-year-old Dye said Wednesday from his Florida home.
The adjacent Nicklaus Tournament Course, panned by Greg Norman after he won the 1993 PGA Grand Slam, is being used for the first time, and player-favourite La Quinta Country Club is the lone holdover. After rounds Thursday-Saturday on the three courses with two pros and two amateurs in each group, the tour players will return to the Stadium Course on Sunday.
“Selfishly, I’m disappointed that it’s changed courses, just because I had success on the other courses,” said Bill Haas, the winner last year and in 2010.
Water is in play on half of the holes on the Stadium Course. Though brush that lined many holes has been removed, the closing three-hole stretch remains daunting.
The par-5 16th has a 20-foot deep bunker along the left side of the green. In 1987, late House Speaker Tip O’Neill escaped only by throwing his ball.
“It’s just not a place you want to go,” Haas said. “I think you’ll see a lot of players hitting it over there right of that green.”
The rock-lined island-green 17th — called “Alcatraz” — is a longer, elevated version of Dye’s 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.
“I hit two in the water today,” 2014 winner Patrick Reed said after his pro-am round. “If you have a one-shot lead going into 17, we’ll see how tough it really is.”
The par-4 18th has a narrow fairway with water on the left side.
In 1987, with the majority of tour players still using woods actually made of wood, Corey Pavin won with a closing 5-under 67. Johnny Miller shot 77, Sandy Lyle 78, Tom Purtzer 79, Calvin Peete 80, and Tim Simpson 83.
Some players have scored well at the course in the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament. Jonathan Fricke set the course record of 63 in 2008 and Whee Kim matched it in 2012.
The 10th-ranked Reed earned his tour card in 2012 at PGA West. He and British Open champion Zach Johnson, at No. 11, are the highest-ranked players in the field.
“It wasn’t on my schedule,” Johnson said. “I just woke up one morning and I’m like, ‘Why am I not playing next week?’ So here I am.”
CareerBuilder is in its first year as the title sponsor of the event long called the Bob Hope Classic, taking over for Humana.