THE AMERICAN EXPRESS: The PGA Tour makes landfall in the continental U.S. this week, leaving behind the strong Hawaii winds for the relative calm of the California desert. This tournament, once known as the Bob Hope Classic and now, after several name changes, known as The American Express, has been on the schedule for 61 years, and it will once again be a pro-am that stretches over three courses, making it one of the more unusual events to both compete in and handicap. Everybody will alternate between LaQuinta Country Club and PGA West’s Nicklaus and Stadium courses over the first three rounds, before all the action moves to PGA West Stadium for a pros-only final round on Sunday.
If you like watching professionals grind out pars and sweat out stressful situations, this is not the week for you– this event is always a birdie-fest, as it’s taken 20-under or better to win here in each of the past 12 years, with last year’s champion Adam Long reaching 26-under. LaQuinta is a straightforward, shortish par-72 that the players eat alive, and the other two courses feature ample room off the tee and not much trickery around the greens. Plus, the setup is always friendly for the first three days on account of all the amateurs in the field, making this one of the most low-stress tests the Tour has to offer.
Long’s victory last year was his first on the PGA Tour, and this tournament has a history of not always catering to the favorites– in addition to Long, names like Brian Gay, Mark Wilson, and Hudson Swafford have been engraved on the trophy in recent years, so this could be a good week to give a couple of long-odds guys a shot. With the unusual format and relatively few big names in attendance, this is an excellent opportunity for someone like Long to make their mark and earn a Masters invite.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Charles Howell III (31.0)- Howell played some beautiful golf to close out 2019, logging four top-20s and a pair of top-10s in six events that spanned from September to November. After a holiday break he was back at it last week at Waialae and picked up right where he left off, rallying from an opening-round 72 to shoot 67-66-69 and finish 12th. Always a threat on the West Coast Swing, he has an excellent history at this event, making the cut 12 times in 14 career appearances and putting up some nice finishes, including a runner-up in 2013, a T11 in 2016, and a T12 in 2017. With the way he’s been striking the ball over the past few months and his obvious comfort with this format and these courses, it’s difficult to imagine him not being a factor this week, making him a very fair value at a price like 31.0.
Phil Mickelson (48.0)- Though he’s clearly past his prime and will soon be competing on the Champions Tour, Mickelson has shown that he still has plenty of game left, making the cut in 6 of his last 7 events and most recently finishing T28 at the WGC-HSBC Champions. This will be his first time back on the course in a few weeks, but the venue couldn’t be much friendlier, as he’s a past champion of this event and finished runner-up just last year. He then went on to win at Pebble Beach, proving 1. he still has enough game to win on Tour; 2. he’s still tough to beat in his home state of California; and 3. he’s not the least bit bothered by the unusual pro-am format. Mickelson may get worn down by the tougher, more demanding venues these days, but that description does not apply to the courses he’ll see this week, and in a laid back birdie-fest like this, Lefty is still as dangerous as they come. He’s certainly worth a bet at nearly 50/1.
Peter Malnati (200.0)- As mentioned, this event has seen its share of unexpected winners, and considering that Malnati hasn’t logged a PGA Tour victory since the 2015 Sanderson Farms Championship, it would certainly be unexpected were he to win this week. But there are reasons for optimism– given the straightforward nature of these courses and the friendly pro-am setup, this tournament is often derided as a “putting contest”, and there are very few putters in the world better than Malnati, who has retained status on Tour largely due to his work with the flat stick. He led last week’s Sony Open in both one-putt percentage and fewest putts per round en route to a 12th-place showing, and he now ranks second on Tour in both of those statistical categories, as well as 13th in Strokes Gained Putting. He certainly seemed comfortable on these greens last year, when he finished 18th despite finding the fairway on fewer than half of his tee shots, and given his strong play last week, I think there’s a good chance that his ball striking is in better shape this time around. This has been a tournament for longshots, and at 200.0, Malnati certainly qualifies… don’t be afraid to toss a couple of bucks his way.