The Track Meet Open

The Humana Challenge has another great thing going for it besides its partnership with President Clinton: the Palm Springs desert produces ideal conditions for grooming perfect golf courses and then playing them.

If you’ve never played a desert course, the fairways are perfect and the greens are like smooth, marble tabletops. Once you figure out the secret of the lay of the land, that everything breaks (downhill) to Indio, if you can’t make putts in the desert, your putting is off. It is true that the local typography is the dominant determinant of how a putt will break, but then you have to decide how much Indio will influence that, if any. It’s the same in the Arizona deserts with their nearby mountains and valleys.

So into that mix, you throw the best players in the world. And what you get is something that looks more like a track meet than a golf tournament.

When you play in the Humana, you know that you have to go low early and often. But as David Toms pointed out in his media interview, “…when it was a five-round tournament, you had to play really well every day. It will be the same here, but you don’t have to do it for five days, you have to do it for four. So maybe it will be a little bit easier.”

Well, it was certainly easier for him. Playing the La Quinta Country Club, he shot a bogey-free, 9-under par, 63 to tie for the lead at the end of the first day. He was paired with Phil Mickelson and between that and their two familiar amateurs, it was just a very comfortable, magical day. Not so much for Phil who shot 2-over, is at the back of the pack and has a lot of ground to make up before Saturday night’s cut. His splashy start on the front was ruined by two balls out of bounds and a “couple of 3-putts.” He claimed he had been playing well, but it sounds like a classic case of rusty game.

But he did make one excellent point about the change he’s made in his approach to putting:

…for the last couple years I’ve been trying to work on mechanics and fundamentals to get the ball started on line. It’s never allowed me the opportunity to get “out into the putt,” meaning trying to match up the speed with the line I’ve chosen. I was so worried about getting it started on line.

And I feel like I’m passed that. I’m not worried about line. Now all I’m worried about is getting the speed to match up with the line I’ve chosen and so that’s a whole different thought process.

Good putters, when they’re on, are always more concerned with matching speed and line. When you are “out into the putt,” you could kick it on the right line, an exaggeration to make the point.

While Toms is tied for the lead, it was Camilo Villegas who shot the first 63. His was the same deal: 9-under and not a bogey on the card. He claims he left a couple out there–I saw one graze the lip on 18–but it’s hard to imagine there were too many; he only had 24 putts. But in his accomplishment, he will add fuel to the fire of one of the hottest conversation in the game: he’s gone to the belly putter.

And given the conditions, the field is bunched. There are 4 guys one stroke back including Brandt Snedeker; 7 guys two strokes back including, Steve Marino, Brendon de Jonge and Ben Crane; 8 guys three strokes back including rookie phenom, Bud Cauley, Mark Wilson, Martin Laird and Kevin Na; and 9 guys four strokes back including Jeff Overton, Erik Compton (working on his third heart) and Pat Perez. They all shot 5-under, 67.

So it is way too early to coronate anyone, but it was grand day for these guys and come the dawn, everyone shifts to a new course.

I just have to add parenthetically that 25 guys shot 4-under and another 24 shot 3-under. And although just one day doesn’t provide any real accuracy on what the cut line will be because so many could get hot on Friday, if you shot 2-under, you’re outside the cut line right now.

That’s yet another measure of just how good you have to play in the desert. And don’t think it’s not on their minds.

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