The PGA Tour’s Humana Challenge, in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, kicks off this week with Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Luke Donald…and Travelin’ Joe Passov. Yep, I’m one of 156 amateurs who will play alongside 156 pros for three days. Then, six highly skilled amateurs will qualify for round 4. This should be a wild week in the Palm Springs desert, and I’ll keep you posted step by step.
In recent years, the tournament that was long known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic has abandoned the celebrity emphasis, a format that delighted fans but annoyed the pros. With three amateurs paired with each pro for four days of actual tournament competition, concentration slipped quickly for the game’s best, who began staying away in droves. Now there are three rounds with one amateur partner. Rounds are quicker, and better fields have returned. The real winner is Desert Classic Charities, a non-profit entity that runs the Humana Challenge. Since 1960, more than $56 million in charity money has been donated. In 2014, the tournament donated $800,000 to 39 local charities. The presence of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation has helped, lending the event some real gravitas.
My goal this week is modest: Stay out of the way! It’s one thing to yuk it up in a Wednesday Pro-Am scramble; it’s another to be inside the ropes for a week, trying to behave properly and cope with nerves, while a PGA Tour pro is competing for a paycheck and perhaps a tournament victory.
My week officially started on Monday with a text from my caddie-to-be. It said simply, “Humana caddie.” I rang him back. “Sandy” sounded reassuring. He had experience caddying on the Canadian Tour. He had my course rotation and tee times down. He knew the Palm Springs/La Quinta area well, as he lives there five months a year. He also sounded official. “What time do you want me to have your bag on the range?” Hmmm…With my assignments these days, forget about the range. I’m usually putting on my golf shoes in the middle of the first fairway, racing to catch up with my playing partners. Okay, game on. I’ll be there an hour before my first tee time, I told him. “9:20, the Jack Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West.” We agreed to talk again on Wednesday.
One piece of news was interesting: my course rotation. Since we started at the Nicklaus course, it meant that I would proceed to the Palmer Private at PGA West on Friday and La Quinta Country Club on Saturday. The glamor groups get Saturday at Palmer Private, along with maximum television exposure. That’s a mixed blessing for me. No TV time, but fewer nerves and much smaller crowds to affect my shaky swing.
I didn’t think I would know who I would be playing with until Wednesday night’s pairings party. That’s how it worked when I played in a Champions Tour Pro-Am in Hawaii. Oops! I was wrong. Pairings were up on Monday night. At 10:30 p.m., I found out I’d make my PGA Tour debut alongside 57-year-old Donnie Hammond, the 1986 Bob Hope Champion. I was hardly expecting to play with someone older than me, but off we go. I’m a huge golf history buff, so I’ll see if I can help Donnie relive his glory days and recapture the magic.
Less than magical of late? My golf swing. A serious shoulder injury had led to some awful adjustments over the past few years, so on Tuesday morning I went to Kierland Golf Club for a check-up — a lesson with Top 100 instructor Tim Mahoney. He was amazing. There’s a reason you’re voted into the Top 100 year after year, and in Tim’s case, it’s easy to see why. In 10 minutes, he had me hitting the snot out of the ball. “Let your eyes follow the ball.” “Release.” “Keep it simple.” A couple of positioning tweaks and we were good to go. I had a huge smile. I can’t promise to bring it when the pressure’s on, but at least I’ve got some good techniques to fall back on when the stress soars.
Wednesday morning, and I’m ready for the four-hour drive from Phoenix to Palm Springs. I did the weird stuff you do when playing tournament golf: checked my clubs, made a blue Sharpie mark on each of two dozen balls (hey, I’m a realist), tossed in my extra golf glove. Phew! (EXHALE) Let’s go do this.