Humana Challenge: Will Phil be in hunt?
From 2004 through 2009, Phil Mickelson won at least twice each season on the PGA Tour, accumulating 16 total victories (and three major championships) in that span.
For almost every golfer on the planet, two victories on the PGA Tour in two years (Phil's combined total in 2010 and 2011) would be a massive achievement. But for Mickelson, who sits in a tie for ninth on the Tour's all-time win list with 39, merely reaching number 40 in 2012 would be disappointing. Mickelson kicks his 2012 season off this week at the Humana Challenge, an event formerly known as the Bob Hope.
Trivia questionWho is the only player to win the Sony Open and the Tournament of Champions (the Hawaii events) back-to-back in the same season? (Answer below)
Four different times as a professional, Phil Mickelson has won in his first PGA Tour start of a calendar year. That number is five if you include Mickelson's win at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open, which still stands as the last time an amateur won on the PGA Tour.
Mickelson opened last year with a second-place finish at Torrey Pines. The closing moments of the the 2011 Farmers' Insurance Open were memorable -- needing to hole out for eagle to force a playoff with fellow lefty Bubba Watson, Mickelson sent his caddie to tend the flag from 72 yards out. Phil's shot missed by four feet.
Entering that week, another player's season debut garnered more headlines -- Tiger Woods started his disappointing 2011 campaign with a resounding thud -- a tie for 44th at a course where he had held a five-tournament win streak.
This marks the 10th time in Lefty's career that he's teed it up at the event formerly known as the Bob Hope. It's the sixth time he has started his PGA Tour season at the event. In those six starts, he's won twice and finished tied for fifth (in 2006) another time.
Like almost all pro-am tournaments, PS3-like scores to par are prevalent in this event. One reason why is that the tournament traditionally has been five rounds, so inherently the leaders are going to wind up more shots below par than usual (the format is just a plain-old 72-hole tournament this year). Secondly, the courses involved are traditionally some of the easiest on the PGA Tour (the numbers of which we'll get into later).
So it should come as no surprise that Mickelson's most ridiculous-looking scores came in this event. He has reached 30 shots under par only twice in his career on the PGA Tour. Both instances came at the Bob Hope, when he won in 2002 and 2004.
Regardless of whether Mickelson is in the hunt at the Humana Challenge, he's a welcome sight for golf fans who enjoy his remarkable creativity and shot-making ability.
As stated before, this traditionally laid-back event isn't exactly known as a difficult test for some of the world's best players.
The 2012 Humana Challenge will be held on just three courses -- the PGA West (Nicklaus), PGA West (Palmer) and La Quinta CC -- instead of the event's usual four. Last year, the four courses that hosted this event ranked 43rd, 47th, 49th and 50th out of 51 in difficulty.
In fact, over the past four years, if you average out the four courses' difficulty ranks, 2011's mark of 47.3 was actually their strongest showing. In 2009, the Bob Hope featured the four easiest courses on the entire circuit.
Since 2000, no winner at this event has been fewer than 17 shots under par. The average total under par for tournament winners in that span is a staggering 26.6. If you're a golf fan who likes to see players go extra-low, this is the event for you.
A total of 15 of the 24 PGA Tour rookies who teed it up last week at the Sony Open made the cut -- including all three from "three on the tee" -- Bud Cauley (T-29th), Jonas Blixt (T-54th) and Seung Yul-Noh (66th). We at Numbers Game don't like to brag, but that's certainly a nice start to the season.
For this week, Numbers Game calls to the tee:
Jhonattan Vegas: The former Texas Longhorn and owner of one of the best names in sports begins the week as a defending champion for the first time in his PGA Tour career. Vegas started last year on fire -- his win at the Hope and subsequent T-3 finish at Torrey Pines the following week had the golf world buzzing. Vegas struggled for the rest of the year, though, with zero top-10's and seven missed cuts from February through September.
Vegas' old college golf team, though, is setting themselves up for a banner 2012. They currently have two of the top-10 ranked amateur players in the world (according to the R&A) on their roster in Jordan Spieth (second) and Dylan Frittelli (10th). Throw in Vegas' younger brother, Julio, and the Longhorns are GolfWeek's No.-1 ranked college team.
Charles Howell III: Howell tied for second last week at the Sony Open, his best finish on the PGA Tour since 2009 in New Orleans. It was his second career runner-up finish at the event, and his sixth finish there in the top-five. Howell has had remarkable success at the Sony Open throughout his career. In fact, in 18 career weekend rounds at the event, Howell has never shot worse than par, posting a sparkling scoring average of 67.3.
Question: Who is the only player to win the Sony Open and the Tournament of Champions (the Hawaii events) back-to-back in the same season?
Answer: Ernie Els in 2003.
Greg Norman: The World Golf Hall of Famer will make his first appearance at this event since 1986 this week. It's a rare treat for golf fans to see Norman in competition -- the Shark has teed it up just 10 times in official PGA Tour events since 2005. The Presidents Cup captain has made just one cut in an official PGA Tour event since his memorable (and near-historic) run at the 2008 Open Championship -- that came in Houston in 2009.
Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the new Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.