LA QUINTA, Calif. —Phil Mickelson hosted a private dinner the other night at the Madison Club. The red wine glasses were very large. After the meal, Lefty explained the strategy of his ambassadorial role for The Desert Classic, where the celebration of this year’s 60th anniversary of the tournament is somewhat dampened for not having a full title sponsor.
Mickelson doesn’t plan on asking his friends to play in the coming years as a personal favor. No, he’ll make a logical appeal to the tour’s next generation of stars, convincing them that the desert is the best place to start a season. As he feels he’s learned with his game, adjusting technique to flight shots against the trade winds of Hawaii is not the way to get off on the right foot. And while Tiger Woods likes to debut at Torrey Pines, that’s a difficult and often damp test of golf. Why not kickstart with confidence in the desert, where the greens are always pure and the birdies come in bunches?
As an example of a player where Mickelson might already be preaching to the converted, take Chesson Hadley. The 31-year-old didn’t win in 2018 to qualify for Kapalua, and Waialae is a long way to go for one week for a man with two youngsters. His in-laws could come to Palm Desert, and a big part of the return to normalcy for Hadley and his wife, Amanda, is dropping their 3- and 5-year old at the daycare provided by the PGA Tour. “As chaotic as our lives are, getting back on tour gives us some semblance of stability.” Hadley hadn’t intended on not touching a club for four weeks, his longest break that he can remember, but this year the holidays and weather conspired. For the 2019 season there’s a new app strictly for PGA Tour players that will enable them to commit and withdraw from tournaments with one-click, view stats and more, though Hadley hasn’t downloaded it yet. “Amanda takes care of all that, she’s so organized, I’m lucky,” he says.
I happened to be paired with Hadley in the Bob Hope Legacy Pro-Am, so that’s the reason he’s our example. Even though he was reading and cheering our meaningless putts, it was plain to see this was a guy whose mind was on returning to work. Of course, the wraparound PGA Tour season starts in the fall, but psychologically, tour players are the same as the rest of us. The click of the calendar, Christmas trees on the curb, this is when we begin anew.
“You can get your swing back in a day, you’re not going to lose speed, but it’s the short game that takes the longest to come back.” At almost every green, Hadley steals a minute to himself to hit chips and short pitches.
“Even though I haven’t historically played well [at The Desert Classic], the format guarantees at least three competitive rounds. Compared to two rounds and then missing a cut, that can be huge for finding something and getting back in the mode of competing,” Hadley says. “Starting with the West Coast swing is brutal, especially for rookies. You’re at sea level so the ball isn’t flying anywhere, the rough is deep, it’s just harder.”
Hadley is currently ranked 65th in the world. His goal is to crack the top-50 by the end of February. He’ll play Riviera only if he has to. “So many world ranking points up for grabs there,” he says.
But first he has to get past the 10th hole of the PGA West Stadium Course. Musician Kelly James and band is fully amplified, doing their distinct improv of razzing every single pro and amateur that comes through.
Hadley pipes a drive through the rhymed insults, setting up his first birdie of what’s so far been a tough day. “If I play good early and then fizzle, you’ll never remember me,” Hadley jokes to his am partners. And then, “I’ve heard Kelly make fun of me about 30 times, so at this point I only feel a little something over the ball…But tomorrow morning, not having played a tournament in almost three months, I’m definitely going to be feeling something.”
How to play golf again is hard enough, let alone having to worry about where.