A unique, if not unprecedented swing segue sets spikes in the SoCal desert sands this week, with the debut Galleri Classic at Mission Hills CC in Rancho Mirage.
Long the site and date stamp of the LPGA’s Chevron Championship (aka, the “Dinah,” the “ANA,” the . . .) which had played as golf’s first major of the season since 1983, the Chevron’s departure for Houston cleared the calendar for the PGA Tour Champions to return to the Coachella Valley for the first time in three decades.
The return of the 50-plus-ers is both welcome and apt.
After 51 years of hosting the LPGA (with the Chevron played as a non-major from 1972-82), the vibe at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills had undoubtedly seen a decline in both attendee enthusiasm and sponsor devotion across the New Millennium; as evidenced by its playing under eight different monikers (really) across a half century and seeing a tangible descent in galleries, the timing for a refreshed chapter in Palm Springs pro golf appears ripe with new potential.
And, sure, losing a major championship may seem a smudge upon the region’s golf-rich resume’, but this area is no stranger to seeing tournaments tee-and-leave. Books can be (and have been) penned on the diverse wealth of professional golf in the Coachella Valley across the past 75 years, with nearly each event having reached an impending epilogue.
The Ryder Cup was played here twice in the 1950s, and while a return in 1991 appeared hopeful, the PGA of America ultimately opted to go cross-country for a host, opting for one Pete Dye track (Kiawah) over another (the Stadium Course at PGA WEST). The former Skins Game was once a desert fixture across two decades and six different area courses. Remember the Battle at BIGHORN? Yeah, that put the desert in prime time from 2000-2002, sporting the palpable likes of Tiger, Phil, Jack, Annika and Trevino. And the Champions’ original desert run spanned 1981-93; held in its first three iterations as an unofficial event, the tourney played under five different monikers across two locales, concluding as the Gulfstream Aerospace Invitational in its final year.
Of course, the valley’s annual PGA Tour stop, the American Express, has managed to stay put since its debut in 1960. The narrative along the way, however, has seen the rota tourney played upon a whopping 13 different courses in that time, while the event has sported 10 (!) different titles.
To borrow from Bob Dylan: “There is nothing so stable as change.”
As the senior set re-tees in the desert this week, an aim for such stability is at the forefront.
Same Course, New Journey
Advances in distance considered, longtime fans, followers, media types and competitors at the former LPGA stop always maintained a pretty consistent sense of playing strategy across the nuanced, Demond Muirhead-designed Dinah Course. Sure, such sense began to abate when Patty Tavatanakit went wire-to-wire and averaged 323 yards off the tee in her ’21 win at the ANA Inspiration, but, pound-for-pound, the course held its own against advances in ball and club.
Hell, Dottie Pepper’s aggregate 269 (19-under) is now forever etched as the tourney record, and she authored that tally back in 1999.
As the Champs take on the grounds for the first time, longtime tourney devotees are most interested in compare and contrast, and how scoring plays out for the event’s debut.
“I used to live (here) at Mission Hills, so I know this course, and John Cook and I used to play here a bit,” Fred Couples said on the driving range before Thursday’s pro-am. “I remember all the holes, and (my caddie) Joe (LaCava) said, ‘Wow, the greens have a lot of slope.’ I don’t really remember that, but he know a lot about golf, so if they’re still slopey, they’re still slopey.”
In prepping for the first round, Couples spoke toward the Dinah’s penchant for subtle putting undulation.
“You’ll laugh at this, but today I might try and hit a few irons 50-feet away (from the pin), which I can do easily; just so I have some long putts,” added Couples. “You're going to laugh at this comment, but I might try and hit a few irons like 50-feet away, which I can do easily, but if I had 9-irons and wedges, just so I have some long putts. I can go on the putting green all day long and practice my putting, but again, I've not stepped -- I haven't played this course in over 30 years. And that's bizarre, but that's the way it is.”
Basic math offers that the Champions average about 10 percent more distance off the box than do their LPGA counterparts; such enhance, however, will be pared with the Champions playing about 5 percent more golf course than did the ladies.
The Dinah can stretch as deep as nearly 7,300 yards, though the tourney set-up will be closer to 7,100; of overt numerical note is the signature, par-5 finisher, which can roll back at 650 yards en route to its island green. Per the LPGA, keeping eagle in play makes for better drama, so viewers should anticipate use of forward tees.
Course set-up will prove more benign than it annually did for major title golf, what with rough cuts closer to 2-inches than the 5-inch salad through which the ladies were forced to hack come Sunday; and, yes, Galleri green speeds will stick closer to member play than the 13 ½ Stimp status upon which the ladies rolled.
One could go Beautiful Mind on such breakdowns in an attempt to assess eventual Galleri scoring, but, on this particular golf course, such numbers may not even matter.
As evidenced by seasoned ladies often winning and always in contention at the Chevron, the Dinah demands apt ball placement from the tees; per most any course, yeah, distance matters, but the sweet subtlety of the Dinah presents continual asks for not simply hitting a good drive – but hitting good drives in proper spots to arrange for approaches that provide necessary angles for attack.
Let the chess game ensue.
Better with Age
This is no longer your dad’s Champions Tour.
Echoing the career renaissance authored by reigning Player of the Year, Steven Alker, PGA Tour Champions at large is amid its own era of revival. Gone are the days of old (old) boys, legends though they indeed were, gracing galleries with the Queen’s wave; in lieu, today’s fields sport a still-game all-star team of the ‘90s.
To wit: The Galleri tee sheet offers 10 World Golf Hall of Famers; 56 PGA Tour winners; 20 major winners; and a combined 358 PGA Tour titles.
To see the modern marquee is to go full-on mononym: Freddie; Ernie; Daly; Vijay; Stricker; Paddy; Monty; Mechanic; Goose; 58; Lumpy; Sunshine; Rocco; K.J.
And, of course, Bernhard.
The Galleri may well have dodged a hosel shot at last week’s Hoag Classic at Newport Beach CC, when Langer atypically let a late-game lead slip away in the event’s closing holes. At stake was golf’s most underrated record: The all-time mark for PGA Tour Champions victories.
In giving way to eventual winner Ernie Els, the timeless Langer stands tied with Hale Irwin with 45 career Champs’ wins, a record perhaps best illuminated when recognizing that nobody else even has 30 victories amid the 50-plus crew. Having bested his age (65) nine times on a Champions Tour scorecard, having won on said Tour every single year since joining its ranks back in 2010 and just a month removed from earned win 45 at the Chubb Classic in Naples, Langer appears not merely poised, but rather possessed to make the mark his own.
And for a tourney turning of the page after more than a half-century of history, no story could prove more palpable, more pleasingly cyclical, than a modern classic writing the chapter of a new story all his own.