LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) — The PGA Tour is back on the mainland in the Palm Springs area, where the mandate is always to go low.
Three relatively straightforward desert courses greet the field each year at The American Express, where tidy scores abound and shot-making mettle gets another early season after similar standards in Hawaii. The weather forecast is looking ideal at PGA West La Quinta, with little wind and no rain predicted to get in the way of birdies and eagles by the bunch.
An increasingly large chunk of the world's top players are making their way to the event in recent years, unintimidated by the high standards necessary for contention and eager to get aggressive.
“I feel like the easier courses on tour, you can’t really get behind, just because it’s so much harder to catch up,” top-ranked Scottie Scheffler said Wednesday. “If you look at a U.S. Open golf course ... if the average scores are low 70s, you can still get those crazy-low numbers every now and then, so there’s hope. Here, you can’t get caught too far behind. You’ve got to hit the ground running and start making birdies early.”
Relative simplicity is the new standard at the 65th edition of The American Express, a tournament once known for its complexity — at least between shots.
The former Bob Hope Desert Classic spent a half-century as a five-round pro-am affair in which golf stars mingled with politicians, millionaires and Hollywood royalty for long, languorous rounds. That style of tournament fell out of favor as pro golf generally got more serious in the 21st century — Tiger Woods stayed away, for instance — and the pro-am format was dropped in 2012.
The tournament still has some distinct features, including the three-course rotation before the 54-hole cut. Aggressive play also remains vital.
Patrick Cantlay knows all about what to do: He set the Stadium Course scoring record with a 61 in the final round in 2021, only to lose by one stroke to Si Woo Kim.
“It’s important really to be patient around these tracks,” said Cantlay, who was born in Long Beach and played at UCLA. “You can make two, three, four, five birdies in a row out here, but when you’re making pars, you’re feeling like you’re falling behind. Sometimes you just have to wait for your stretch of holes. They’re courses where you feel like you’ve got to shoot 3, 4 under a side. I know that, but at the same time, play my normal golf and stay patient.”
The field is impressive at the top, with Scheffler flanked by Southern Californians Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, who returns to the desert after a five-year absence. Defending champion and Kapalua winner Jon Rahm isn't here after joining LIV Golf, but Justin Thomas is making his 2024 debut with his first trip to the event since 2015.
All 30 players who earned their cards on the Korn Ferry Tour are here, but the most prominent is Tom Whitney, the 34-year-old Air Force veteran who attended La Quinta High School. Whitney, who made his first PGA Tour cut at this event in 2018, is starting his first full year on tour.
“There was more pressure coming here in 2018 on a sponsor’s invite,” Whitney said. “Now, I was chatting with my caddie earlier today, and it feels like I belong out here. I’ve earned my way to hold this card.”
MIN WOO'S TURN
Among the other high-profile rookies making their 2024 debuts is 25-year-old Min Woo Lee, who won two international tournaments down the stretch last year and earned his first full season on the PGA Tour. The social media-savvy Aussie finished tied for fifth at the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club last summer, and he's living in Las Vegas this year when he isn't out chasing a breakthrough season.
“I know the scores will be low, but you’ve still got to play really well,” Lee said of The American Express. “Like Jon Rahm said, it’s a putting contest, and if you get it on the green, hopefully you make some putts.”
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