The Humana Challenge (former the Bob Hope Desert Classic), the first mainland stop for the PGA Tour this season, is following in the footsteps of last week’s Sony Open with rookie PGA Tour pros making their presence felt at the top of the leaderboard. Two of the three players who are tied for first after 18 holes, Jason Kokrak and James Hahn, are rookies in their first season as PGA Tour members; the third, Roberto Castro, is in his second year as a member of the Tour.
The Humana Challenge is played in a pro-am format which is similar to the AT&T Pro-Am, and is contested over three different courses for the first three days. The three first-round co-leaders are all on different courses – Castro on the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West today, Kokrak at La Quinta Country Club at PGA West, and Hahn on the Palmer Private Course.
Each of the co-leaders fired bogey-free rounds of 9 under, with Kokrak throwing in the added spice of two eagles, on the par-5 sixth and eleventh holes. Castro opened his round with a pair of birdies, and didn’t go more than three holes in a row before notching up another bird.
Hahn was 6-under after his opening nine, and appeared to be stuck at 8-under after birdies on the 11th and 12th holes – the birdie at the par-3 twelfth coming on a 35-foot chip-in from off the green – were followed by a string of five pars. With his last chance to tie for the lead coming up at the 18th hole, he was on the green in two, with a 23-foot eagle putt standing between him and sole possession of the lead. He missed the eagle, but the 2-putt birdie moved him up into a tie with Kokrak and Castro.
Hahn, a 2003 graduate of Cal Berkeley, lives in San Bruno; his home course is Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City.
Another rookie who has already made a splash in the newly-minted 2013 PGA Tour season, Russell Henley – last week’s Sony Open champion – is currently T-4, at 8 under. Henley, a former University of Georgia Bulldog, either led or was tied for the lead all four days at Waialae Country in Honolulu last week, coming out on top to take the win in his first outing as a PGA Tour member.
In the Humana Challenge’s previous incarnation as the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the big name PGA Tour pros often avoided the tournament. Not that the desert climate isn’t pleasant in mid-January, but the tournament was avoided by many top pros because of the pro-am format (formerly one pro and three amateurs per grouping, and four courses over five days; now two and two, and three courses over four days). The tournament has historically been favored by newer players and lower-echelon pros who welcomed the absence of the top dogs, seeing it as a chance to card a good finish against a weaker field. This year’s field has only a smattering of notable names, among them Phil Mickelson, the tournament’s 2002 and 2004 champion; Brandt Snedekr, the 2012 FedEx Cup champion; Zach Johnson, the 2007 Master champion, and Matt Kuchar, a 4-time winner on the PGA Tour who has two Ryder Cup appearances to his credit.
Times have changed on the PGA Tour, but this event is still important to newbies and lower-tier players as a result of scheduling changes that are going into effect this year. The PGA Tour’s 2013 season has been shortened by the coming change to a wrap-around 2013-2014 season, with three former Fall Series events – the Frys.com Open, the Shriners Hospitals Open and the McGladrey Classic – and one alternate event, the Mayakoba Classic – being moved into the opening weeks of the new season and awarding FedEx Cup points. The shortened 2013 season makes it imperative that rookies and lower-ranked pros make money early in the season in order to secure their playing privileges for the next year.