The CareerBuilder Challenge: Course Insights

The PGA Tour‘s California swing begins this week with the 58th annual CareerBuilder Challenge.  Once upon a time known as the Bob Hope Classic, and more recently as the Humana Challenge, this tournament is one of the most historic and iconic events played all year.

Photo credit: Instagram/iamvirtanen

In its heyday, CareerBuilder attracted big-name pros like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player; celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; and presidents like Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton (who all played together in 1995).  Expect to see a few tributes to Palmer this week as well, who won the event a record five times, including the last of his 63 Tour victories.

This year it’s only fitting that Phil Mickelson takes over as tournament ambassador, very much a celebrity in his own right, and probably the perfect player to host this event since Palmer in 2009.  Lefty can schmooze with the best of them, and his love for the game and compassion for the fans will undeniably help bring this proud desert event back to the status it once had.

Known for its Pro-Am Celebrity format, 156 players and 156 amateurs compete on three different courses over the first three days.  The course rotation this year includes La Quinta Country Club, the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course, and the notorious Pete Dye TPC Stadium Course at PGA West.  On Sunday, the low 70 pros (and ties) and six amateurs play the final round back at the Stadium Course.

La Quinta Country Club

Fans can appreciate the the cold-blooded brutality of a perversely difficult course as much as anyone. But they can also appreciate the few polar opposite courses each year that aspire towards the kind of scoring spectacle you’ll see at La Quinta. And a massive outburst of birdies is a certainty, particularly on the four par-5s (which last year were four of the lowest-scoring holes on any course at any tournament).

La Quinta is the flattest and shortest of the three courses, playing at a par 72, 7060 yards.  So accuracy off the tee will take precedence over distance.  And with immaculate Bermuda grass greens that roll true without much trickery, it’s no wonder they’re considered among the finest on Tour. Players will go low, especially if their putters are hot.

Over the years some fans have grumbled early in the season, saying “when will the real golf start?”  Referring to courses being too easy, and scores being too low, drawing some comparison to “garbage time” in other sports.  When players aren’t really tested and are just padding their stats.  If golf is that easy it can’t be real golf, right?

No one’s ever going to say La Quinta will impress with the romantic grandeur or defiant test of say, Augusta National.  But a pro-am isn’t supposed to be murderer’s row. You can’t have 156 amateurs on suicide watch playing with their idols who ironically, probably prefer making birdies over struggling to make pars just like the rest of us.  

La Quinta is a fair test of golf.  It requires players to navigate emerald fairways lined with eucalyptus trees and strategically positioned bunkers, and make good decisions.  The premium at La Quinta is on course management.  And the best example of this might come on the closing par-4, 18th hole, which features a fairway lake that runs up the entire left side, and a small green protected by bunkers on the right that won’t give players any bailout.  Par will be a good score here.

As mentioned, accuracy off the tee will be important, and strokes gained: putting will be decisive.  But even before that, the pro-am format can send some players into the weirder recesses of their minds.  And bringing crazy to the course never ends well.  Players with personalities who actually enjoy playing with amateurs will have a distinct advantage.

Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course

The Jack Nicklaus Tournament course made it’s debut at the CareerBuilder just last year, so there’s really not much in terms of course history to predict how it will play this year.  Other than to say, it’s just the Golden Bear up to his usual tricks.  Nicklaus was initially commissioned to design the course to host the 1991 Ryder Cup.  And many consider it one of his finest designs, a true ball striker’s course.

Nestled within the breathtaking tranquility of picturesque palm trees and magnificent mountain vistas, the Nicklaus Tournament course plays to a par 72, just over 7,200 yards.  And it offers up a great mix of shorter and longer holes.  Wide, lush fairways appear extremely friendly.  But calculated tapering will gather errant shots to lower collection areas and sand bunkers that differ in size and depth.  And raised greens in a variety of shapes, depths, and undulations will thoroughly test the players short game arsenal.

Club selection will be especially crucial on the two island greens, No. 8, and No. 15. And depending on pin positions, they can play like easy scoring holes, or diabolical knee knockers.

The par-4, 9th and 18th holes (appropriately named “Jack’s Revenge”and “Bear Trap”) share a common green and virtually identical approach shots.  The 18th is probably the toughest hole on the course, with both sand and water in play off the tee and on approach.  And the fairway is the narrowest on the course.

Stadium Course

If the La Quinta and Nicklaus Tournament courses can be considered eminently playable, then the TPC Stadium Course is definitely where the tournament becomes eminently terrifying.

Players openly revolted against the Pete Dye designed Stadium Course in 1988, signing a petition stating the course was too difficult, leading to its ban from the event for 27 years. Of course, Dye took it all in stride, saying, “Life isn’t fair, so why should I design a course that’s fair?”

The first few holes begin relatively trouble-free, and might lure players into a false sense of security.  But after that, the par 72, 7,300-yard Stadium Course thrives on inflicting dread-fueled, catastrophic misery onto all players. Most will use every club in their bag.  And there is no escape.

Obscenely deep bunkers pinch landing zones everywhere players look. Finding certain bunkers can be just as round-ruinous as finding water.  And the Kafkaesque treachery of the Stadium Course’s final two holes can plunge even the strongest-minded players into a comatose state.

The 17th hole at the Stadium Course is the most famous.  And notorious. A true island green similar in style to the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass.  But players do make plenty of birdies here if they can keep one simple, swing thought in mind: “don’t miss left, right, long, or short.” And chipping out from the rocks is a good skill to have here as well, just ask defending champion Jason Dufner.

Overhead view of No.17 at PGA West Stadium course courtesy of 18Birdies app GPS+

A few other holes you’ll want to want to keep an eye on include No. 12, which requires a minor miracle to get up and down from if a player misses the green. A bunker deep enough to need a ladder to enter and exit surrounds almost three-quarters of the green. Hole 16 is also notable. which played as the most difficult hole last year, primarily because of the oppressive mounding and out-of-bounds that runs along the entire right side of the hole, with similarly relentless bunkering entrenched alongside the left.  And finally the closing hole, No. 18.  Last year players scored well here, with the hole playing as the fourth easiest of the tournament.  But let’s just say water and rock bounces are fittingly in play.

Join us here next week for a preview of next week’s PGA Tour at the Farmers Insurance Open

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