EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
The PGA Tour heads to the Southern California desert this week and, for my money, there’s no better place to spend a week in January.
Golf in the Dome, it’s been called. Pleasant courses in perfect condition, resplendent in rye, featuring smooth greens. The players and caddies will encounter barely a zephyr, providing a welcome respite for the pros who battled the gusts and rain at Waialae last week.
Birdies shall fly. Caddies can give a yardage and watch their man fire at (most) flags. Sure, there’s ample trouble on the main course, PGA West Stadium, an iconic Pete Dye design, and hazards abound at the Nicklaus Tournament Course as well. But those who are hitting their targets should live in the mid-60s and better aim for 25 under as a target winning score. At least.
The tournament, formerly known as the Hope, as in Bob, and called a slew of names over the last couple of decades is now The American Express. The new host is Phil Mickelson, once a desert king. The course and conditions create the perfect environment to groove stroke and swing and prepare for the 2020 season ahead.
Better be able to either a) crush the par-5s or b) roll your ball this week. The winner will probably thrive at both.
Golfer power rankings
25. Kevin Kisner – Poor putting on Sunday continued a disturbing trend in 2019-20 – 139th strokes gained – but his steady ball-striking (35th tee-to-green) should create a plethora of birdie opportunities. Made the last 3 cuts in La Quinta.
24. Henrik Norlander – Registered a top-10 last week in Hawaii and buoyed by that confidence arrives in the desert, where he hasn’t played since 2017 and made one of three cuts.
23. Nate Lashley – Tied for 12th here last year and 29th the year before. Having a solid season. Tied for third at the Greenbrier but hasn’t done much since, playing his third consecutive week.
22. Aaron Baddeley – If it is a putting contest, as it often can be, hard to find a better stroke than this one. He’s 13th on Tour in converting birdie or eagle putts and finished T-18 in the desert in 2019.
21. Francesco Molinari – Light schedule thus far with top 25s in both starts and hasn’t really been the same since he dunked his tee shot on No. 12 in the final round of last year’s Masters; still he’s No. 20 in the world.
20. Jason Kokrak – Horrible season on the greens (213th strokes gained: putting) has allowed only one top-10 finish, however, his prodigious drives have produced 34 under and two top 20s here the last two years.
19. Daniel Berger – I first met Berger on the PGA West Stadium course about six years ago during Web.com Tour Qualifying School finals and he oozed confidence. After battling injury in recent years, poised to return to leaderboards across America.
18. Vaughn Taylor – Just missed a top 10 last week but tied for seventh here last year. Always one of the better putters on Tour, he could turn red-hot on these pure greens.
17. Tony Finau – Played solid in the Hong Kong Open last week and can absolutely murder the wide fairways on the reachable par 5s. First appearance since 2016, when he missed the cut.
16. Russell Knox – Struggled on the weekend at Waialae, dropping into a tie for 32nd but have to like his precise iron play – 23rd in strokes gained: approach – and consecutive top-30 results in the desert.
15. Lucas Glover – Has made every cut in the five years using this course rotation and recorded three top 25s. Avoided windswept Waialae and enjoys target golf, finishing T-9 in Vegas last fall.
14. Harold Varner III – Top 30 on Tour in driving distance and birdie average, he’s made the cut in all six starts in 2019-20 and has good vibes in the desert, tying for 18th last year after missing the cut the three previous years.
13. Matthew Wolff – Bit of a quiet start to the 2019-20 season after a sizzling summer yet he’s top 5 in strokes gained: driving and has a trio of top 20 finishes, skipping Waialae after a T-11 in Kapalua.
12. Abraham Ancer – Shot three subpar rounds en route to a T-38 last week. Maybe he’s recovered from the beatdown Tiger Woods administered at Royal Melbourne by now.
11. Kevin Na – Skipped the desert stop last year but made eight of the previous 10 cuts including a pair of top-5 finishes and another top 10. Can make everything when he’s dialed in (ninth in strokes gained: putting).
10. Charles Howell III – Known for his ridiculous ball-striking, he’s enjoying a splendid season with the flat stick (29th strokes gained) and has made 10 consecutive cuts here, with three top 25s in last four years.
9. Byeong Hun An – With a trio of top 10s this season and a solid showing at the Presidents Cup to boost his confidence, An is also top 40 in proximity to the hole and one-putt percentage, which is always a solid combination.
8. Phil Mickelson – Making his 2020 debut, Lefty tied for second here last season and tied for third in 2016. Still powerful enough to bomb the par 5s. Needs the putter to cooperate (187th strokes gained).
7. Adam Long – A surprise champion last year, he tied for second in Mayakoba and ranks 23rd in the FedEx Cup standings. Also 49th in strokes gained: tee to green.
6. Harris English – 12th in strokes gained: tee-to-green this season and 36th in putting. Has a trio of top-5 finishes. Made the cut in the desert in all six appearances since 2012 with a pair of top 20s.
5. Brian Harman – Made the cut in five of seven starts, including three consecutive top 20s on this course rotation before he missed the cut last year.
4. Sungjae Im – He tied for 12th here last year in his debut and although he plummeted to T-21 last week in Hawaii because of a poor final round, there’s no strong reason to believe he won’t continue his remarkable consistent play.
3. Rickie Fowler – A stranger to these sands, he’s one of the marquee names in the field, supporting his buddy Phil in an event he hasn’t played under the current configuration. That putter, though.
2. Brendon Todd – He’s No. 2 in the FedEx Cup standings, instructor Bradley Hughes was on site for a swing tuneup earlier this week and he possesses one of the smoothest putting strokes in the game. Tied for sixth in 2014. Yes, please.
1. Scottie Scheffler – Making his Palm Desert debut, he’s already posted three top-10s in his rookie campaign. A birdie machine (4.89 per round – fifth on Tour) in the land of birdies.