Phil Mickelson, President Bill Clinton give Humana Challenge buzz that would make Bob Hope proud

January 19, 2012

Sixteen men in their 20s won on the PGA Tour in 2011, but golden oldies like Phil Mickelson, 41, still create a special kind of buzz.

Humana Challenge [formerly Bob Hope Classic] officials had been telling everyone about how different this year’s tournament will be now that it’s allied with Humana, a health services company, and President Bill Clinton, who conducted a health symposium Tuesday along with Chelsea Clinton, The Biggest Loser personal trainer Jillian Michaels, Notah Begay III and others. But it wasn’t until Mickelson committed to play nearly two weeks ago that the Hope was truly back.

“I think this tournament has all of a sudden become a sought-after event and an exciting event,” said Matt Kuchar, who has gotten into the habit of playing and practicing in the off-season at nearby Indian Wells, and who finished T2 and T7 at the Hope in 2010 and 2011, respectively.  

Mickelson, who will enter the World Golf Hall of Fame in May, is the Hope’s all-time leading money winner. He was a mainstay because the event’s perfect weather and flawless greens gave him a chance to see where his game needed work. He won it twice. But after the tournament moved to the windy Classic Club, where Mickelson tied for 45th in 2007, it fell off his schedule. Without a star or a title sponsor, the Hope struggled—until it changed everything.

No longer will each pro play with three amateurs per day; the ratio will instead be one to one, as it is for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Previously a nonstop, five-day party, the Humana is now a four-day tournament. Steak sandwiches, not hamburgers, will be served on the driving range. And the Classic Club is out; PGA West (Palmer Private, Nicklaus Private) and La Quinta Country Club are in. Mickelson said he was moved to return in part by President Clinton, who sent letters to several players asking them to reconsider the tournament.

 “I applaud [Clinton] for joining Humana in using the tournament to help promote health and wellness,” Mickelson, the 2002 and ’04 champion, said in a statement released by the Clinton Foundation. “Some of my best seasons have come after starting at this event and I’m excited to be coming back again.”

Asked at the Chevron Challenge last month about President Clinton’s recruiting efforts, Tiger Woods said he had no knowledge of a letter from Clinton.

Others in the field include Greg Norman, a Clinton pal who will play the Hope for the first time since 1986; La Quinta High alumnus Anthony Kim, who had drifted away from the tournament; Dustin Johnson (right knee) and Brandt Snedeker (right hip), coming off injuries; and 13 of the 30 players who made it to last fall’s Tour Championship. They include FedEx champ Bill Haas, who has racked up five top-25 finishes, including a victory in 2010, in seven starts in the desert.

How will Mickelson do? That’s hard to say. He has yet to hit a shot that matters in 2012, although he’s already had a solid year. According to a friend on Tour, Mickelson and his manager, Steve Loy, made a tidy profit when their agency, Gaylord Sports, was acquired by Lagardere Unlimited on Jan. 5. Butch Harmon raved to Golf World recently about Mickelson’s improved outlook under mental coach Julie Elion and said Mickelson is making more putts. Stay tuned.

Steele looks to build on solid rookie season

Whatever his scores, it’s a decent bet Mickelson will prepare for the Humana Challenge in part the same way he’s prepared for other tournaments, including last year’s Players Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: by playing grudge matches with two Gaylord stable-mates, Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley.

“We get really excited for that stuff,” said Steele, who racked up one official win (Valero Texas Open) and one silly-season victory (Franklin Templeton Shootout, with partner Bradley), and hauled in just under $2 million last year.

“You get more nervous doing that than you do playing your own ball out here,” he added, “because you don’t want to look stupid playing in front of Phil.”

Steele didn’t have much of an off-season, so he elected to skip last week’s Sony Open. He said he didn’t want to burn out early the way he did last year, when he played 12 of the first 13 tournaments as a rookie, and Waialae isn’t his thing.

Kapalua wasn’t his thing, either, with the exception of the zip-lining and hanging out poolside and on the beach. His back went out before the tournament started, but his caddie, Nick Wilkins, who is also a physical therapist, came to his aid. Sufficiently recovered, Steele struggled mightily on the severe greens and finished 25th out of 27 players.

“This is probably the hardest course to figure out as far as local knowledge,” Steele said. “I was totally off on the grain and the slopes.”

Instead of playing the Sony, Steele planned to play with Mickelson.

“We don’t live too far from each other,” said Steele, who lives in Irvine, Calif., a little over an hour north of Mickelson’s home in Rancho Santa Fe. “We were talking about trying to find a neutral site so nobody’s got too big an advantage.”

Seniors open season in Hawaii

John Cook will try to defend his title at the 41-player Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai, where the field will be almost as good as it can be.

Reigning Player of the Year Tom Lehman, whom Cook edged in Hawaii last year; a healthy Fred Couples; Mark Calcavecchia; Bernhard Langer; and Tom Watson will all be chasing the $307,000 first-prize check. So will Corey Pavin, who made the cut at the Sony last week. Tom Pernice Jr., who also made the cut at the Sony, elected to play the Humana Challenge on the PGA Tour.

Short game: Ernie Els headlines at the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt, South Africa. … Els (71 in the World Ranking) and Padraig Harrington (89) both have work to do if they’re to qualify for next month’s WGC-Accenture Match Play. … Darren Clarke, also in the field at Fancourt, says he’s given up drinking as part of his new fitness regimen. …  Mickelson will play the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Feb. 2-5, it was announced Tuesday. And he’ll be at the Farmers Insurance Open at San Diego’s Torrey Pines next week. … Woods will start his season in Abu Dhabi next week. … Couples got a sponsor’s exemption for the Waste Management. … Adam Scott, one of the marquee players who opted out of playing the season-opening Hyundai TOC, had his tonsils out Dec. 14 and hadn’t made a full enough recovery to compete at Kapalua. “I kept getting sick all the time,” he told, “and had to have them out.” … Bradley left Oakley for Tommy Hilfiger, while Bradley’s pal Steele joined Oakley. … Jaime Diaz, who has worked for Sports Illustrated and now Golf Digest, will receive the PGA Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism at the Masters in April.