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In 2017, there will quite a few changes taking place at the annual local PGA Tour event that many of us still call the Bob Hope Classic.

For the second year, the tournament—celebrating its 58th year in January—is officially called the CareerBuilder Challenge. However, the Clinton Foundation, which had played a role in the tournament since 2012, is no longer involved—and there’s a new man in charge, too.

The tournament will be run by a self-described “golf nerd”—Dallas native Nick Raffaele, 53. Raffaele has extensive golf-industry experience and was upbeat about the tournament.

“I am a glass-half-full kind of guy,” he said. “I salute the work done by (previous sponsor) Humana in helping stabilize the event. We here in the Coachella Valley are lucky to have a PGA Tour event because of our size and population. We are basically in a rural area, and without some great work previously done, who knows if the tournament would be here?”

Raffaele was not shy about addressing complaints from some about the Clinton Foundation’s association with the tournament, which concluded last year.

“The (Clinton Foundation) was brought in by their partnership with Humana, not by the PGA,” Raffaele said. “Again, I believe the community owes a deep debt of gratitude to Humana for stepping in” when the tournament faced an uncertain future. “We will continue to make sure this event serves local charities. It is part of our mission statement.”

In 2017, the event will also have a new ambassador—golfing great Phil Mickelson. Mickelson recently underwent surgery for a sports hernia, and at this time, it’s not clear whether Mickelson will be able to play in the tourney. Regardless, Raffaele is not concerned.

“We want Phil playing at 100 percent,” he said. “As crazy as it sounds, it may be beneficial if he can just stay and hear and learn up-close everything the tournament encapsulates.

“Both Phil and the CareerBuilder Challenge expect a long and lasting partnership. Phil is committed 100 percent, and when you talk about the current stars of golf, few get any bigger.”

One of the things Raffaele praises about the event is the on-site volunteer staff.

“The people who volunteer are the ones who see the value in the tournament being here in the Coachella Valley,” Raffaele said. “We couldn’t do it without them. We want them to know they are important. The other day, I was with Lee Morcus of Kaiser Grille, and he was extremely gracious in donating gift cards for our volunteers, totally unsolicited. It is that kind of spirit that makes this tournament what it is.”

The CareerBuilder Challenge kicks off on Thursday, Jan. 19, with play at three courses in the East Valley. A whole week of events begins Monday, Jan. 16. For tickets, event information and details on deals for locals, visit www.careerbuilderchallenge.com.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Sports

Play began in this year’s Coachella Valley PGA tournament stop—formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic, more recently as the Humana Challenge, and now as the CareerBuilder Challenge—on Thursday, Jan. 21.

Tour pros teed off at the La Quinta Country Club (the only layout to return from last year’s competitive three courses), the Nicklaus Tournament Course and, most surprisingly, the TPC Stadium Course. Players took on this challenging 18 holes for the first time—and, until this year, the last time—in tour competition in 1987.

It’s fair to say quite a bit has changed in the pro-golf world in the interim—much of it fueled by the impressive amount of money at stake. In 2016, the total purse for the entire tour season is roughly $330 million. Also, the simple game of golf—hit a ball with a well-manufactured but twisted stick until you knock it into a hole—now generates some $3.4 billion annually in consumer revenue in the U.S. alone. This gold mine has given rise to lucrative commercial-sponsorship opportunities

For each well-sponsored pro, every Thursday marks the first day of competition for that week’s tour stop—and it also signals the day they have to acquiesce to a skilled inspection by Palm Desert resident Buff White and his colleagues at the Darrell Survey Company.

“When people read golf magazines, and there’s a statement of fact regarding golf equipment and accessories—like a company says, ‘We have the No. 1 wedge on tour,’ or ‘the No. 1 fairway wood,’ then it would have to be verified by a third party, which is the Darrell Survey Company,” White said during an interview at the TPC Stadium Course this week. “We’ve been doing that since 1933.”

White, who became a permanent resident of Woodhaven Country Club in 2010 but traveled 46 weeks for the job last year, has been going through pro and amateur golfers’ bags on the first tee of every tournament’s first day of competition for 29 years.

“We check the equipment that the players are actually using to make sure that they are living up to their sponsorship contracts,” White said. “And, for the PGA, we’re making sure that nobody has illegal equipment in the bag, or too many clubs, or if they’re breaking any PGA regulations.”

Since the Coachella Valley stop comes so early in the calendar year, it presents special challenges to these PGA compliance representatives.

“For the first four events in January of each year, equipment changes like crazy,” White said. “These guys have had a few weeks off, so they’ve been able to practice with new golf balls, new wedges, new putters and new drivers, and everybody is always tweaking their equipment a little bit. This tournament is always tough, because you have amateurs playing, and the manufacturers always want to know what clubs are in their bags as well. But the amateurs sometimes don’t know what’s in their bag, so that makes it really tough, because they may have too many clubs, or they’ve got seven hybrids—and it’s a little bit disconcerting.”

What are the ramifications of these last-minute survey inspections? Is any corrective or punitive action taken right there and then as players are about to start?

“Sometimes, but usually nothing happens right then,” White said. “We’re not there to get into their heads. They know if they’re trying to use an illegal club, and sometimes they’ll do weird things. Like sometimes, they’ll tee off without a driver in their bag, and they’ll leave it on the third-hole tee box and pick it up when they get there. Or a guy will (think), ‘I’m under contract with company “X,” but I don’t want to play that driver,’ so they’ll show you the right driver, and then they’ll go pull a different one out of the starter’s tent on the first tee. So we’re always on our toes and looking for that guy who’s trying to figure out a way to get around the rules or his deal obligations.”

On rare occasions, though, if a player blatantly flouts the regulations, he could be penalized strokes or be disqualified from the tournament.

“Usually, other players will rat a guy out” said White with a chuckle. “If they think one of the guys is spinning the ball like crazy, they’ll go to a rules official and say, ‘We want you to look at this guy’s wedges,’ and the official would go right to the player and tell him that they need to verify the grooves on the club face.”

When White approached the bag of fan favorite Phil Mickelson on the first tee at the La Quinta Country Club on yesterday’s first day of play, you could read tension in the exchange between White and Phil’s caddy, whose nickname is Bones. (See the first picture below.)

“Phil doesn’t change anything in his bag usually very much, and Bones, his caddy, isn’t the easiest guy to deal with at times,” White said afterward. “He makes the tee box seem like it’s his office space, and it’s not like a golf course to him. So when he’s done with you, he’s done with you. But Phil had made a lot of changes today, which, like I said, he normally doesn’t make. But Bones was courteous enough to say ‘OK, did you get it all?’ Phil asked me the same thing. So, it took me right up to the last second, but, yeah, I got it all. It was all right.”

So, too, should be this year’s PGA Career Builder Challenge, which wraps up on Sunday, Jan. 24.

Published in Features

The 2015 Humana Challenge Championship was still up for grabs as the last group, containing the sole leader, Bill Haas, came down the 18th fairway on the Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West in La Quinta.

Waiting, watching and keeping loose on the driving range were five players, including Idyllwild’s Brendan Steele, who had finished their rounds tied at 21 under par—one shot behind Haas.

“The tournament’s definitely not over from my perspective,” Steele said as he waited for more than an hour to see if his 21-under total would get him into a playoff. “With the water on the last couple holes, anybody can make a bad swing at any time, so you just kind of hang out and see what’s happening. I can’t act like, ‘Hey, I did a good job, but it’s not enough, and I’m going to go home.’ I’ve got to be ready, just in case anything does happen.”

However, the jailbreak playoff was not to be, as Haas battled to a final-hole par and took home the $1 million-plus paycheck.

Meanwhile, fan favorite Phil Mickelson finished in a tie for 24th place, 7 shots off the lead—and it seemed the weekend was just what he needed. As he wound his way around the three courses, he seemed relaxed and unconcerned. For the first three days, he played a convivial and charming host to the amateur players in his group. Whether regaling them with amusing anecdotes or generously offering helpful tips, Mickelson seemed to be at ease.

“I’ve got some things to improve on, but it was a good week to kind of build a foundation (and) work on my game,” Mickelson told the media after his last round. “We had great weather. That allows you to work on the fundamentals and get the swing basics down without having to fight the elements, without getting into bad habits.”

How does the 2015 season ahead look to these two players?

“I’ve been feeling really, really good, shooting good scores at home,” Steele shared. “I know that doesn’t always translate, but I’m just seeing a big difference in my game.”

Meanwhile, Mickelson said he was excited for the upcoming year.

“I feel I’m ready to go, ready to get started,” he said. “It was a good week to get the year started. Now we’ll see the next two weeks if I can get that fine-tuning done and shoot the low scores I need.”

Scroll down to see several photos from the Humana Challenge.

Published in Snapshot

On Thursday and Friday, Jan. 22 and 23, the crowds grew in size and fervor at the 56th Annual Humana Challenge—and for local fans, there was an unusual bonus, as several local PGA Tour pros were in pursuit of the winner’s payday of $1,026,000.

La Quinta resident Scott McCarron and Palm Desert’s Byron Smith were hovering near par after two days, well behind the leaders. However, Brendan Steele of Idyllwild finished Friday’s round at 9 under par, six shots behind leader Matt Kuchar.

“I’m happy with how I’ve been playing,” Steele told the Independent after Friday’s solid round. “I was a little disappointed with the last six holes today, but overall, I’m really happy with every part of my game.”

Although he and his wife are staying in a condo near the courses this week to cut down the commuting time, he recognized a lot of familiar faces behind the ropes. “The whole town of Idyllwild is showing up, and that’s always fun,” he said with a smile. “It’s a nice way to start the year.”

Each day, as the sun begins to set, many in the early-arriving crowd begin to move away from the fairways of PGA West’s Palmer Private Course and Nicklaus Private Course toward the watering holes and food-truck bonanza at the centrally located Bob Hope Square. There, they find refreshment of all sorts, and can watch the remaining action on multiple big screens. Also, for the first time this year, they can take a stroll down Charity Row to get a close-up look at the many Coachella Valley organizations that benefit directly from the dollars raised through ticket sales and concessions at the tournament.

“More than 80,000 fans enter the grounds through this walkway over the weekend,” said Chrissy Ormond, the client services manager at the Humana Challenge, who works for Desert Classic Charities, “and we just thought this would be a great way to promote many of the 40 recipient charities in the desert and let people get to know who they are.”

While the basic daily grounds pass costs $40 this year, fans might feel better about paying that sum if they understand that much of that money goes to directly to local charities.

“The biggest thing for me is to help the fans understand that while we are a professional golf tournament, we are really positively impacting lives in the Coachella Valley as well,” she said.

Scroll down to see some pictures from the first two days of the Humana Challenge.

Published in Snapshot

The crowd on the Arnold Palmer Private course was pretty thin during the first two days of last weekend’s Humana Challenge Golf Tournament. In fact, during Thursday’s first round of play, only Canadian Mike Weir attracted a sizable fan following—composed mostly of his snowbird countrymen and women.

But during Saturday’s third round (Jan. 18), the crowd was noticeably larger. One of the largest galleries was following the U.S. pro pairing of Zach Johnson (arguably the hottest golfer on the tour) and Keegan Bradley (winner of the 2011 PGA Championship major title).

Along for the ride in the foursome: Coachella Valley amateur competitors Ralph Hemingway and Ed Michaels.

“I’ve played the last eight years with the (Bob) Hope Tournament and now the Humana,” Ralph Hemingway told me after his round. “And right now, I’d say the format of the Humana is the best of any of the pro-ams I’ve ever played at.”

The traditional pro-am format for decades had three amateurs playing with one PGA Tour pro in each foursome, and the tournament stretched over five days and 90 holes of competition.

“This is the second year that they’ve changed to a four-day, 1-on-1 (pros and amateurs) format. And being able to play with a different pro each day is just fantastic,” explained Hemingway. “You talk to the pros. … They felt like an oddball with a pro and three amateurs. Now they’ve got another pro to walk with, and somebody in the same tee box.” (Amateur competitors play from a tee box closer to the hole than the pros do.)

Back in the days of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the tournament was known for the multitude of entertainers and celebrities who showed up to play as amateurs—attracting lots of star-gazers to the fairways.

“People would come to watch the celebrities … not the golf, just the celebrities,” Hemingway recalled. “People with the tournament ask me quite a bit if I miss the celebrities, and I said I really don’t. Celebrities are celebrities. I’m not really a celebrity nut anyway. They can play their game, and I’ll play mine.”

Does he plan on going back to play in the 2015 Humana Challenge?

“Oh sure, I’ll be there,” said Hemingway. “No doubt about it. I’ve played in the Dinah Shore and the Frank Sinatra, and I keep coming back to the Humana. They’ve done a lot of great charity work, and that’s a real factor.”

One last question for Hemingway: Is he related to Ernest?

“Yeah we’re fourth-cousins, and I have a collection of first-edition printings of all his books.”

Scroll down to see a few shots of Hemingway in action.

Published in Snapshot

On Thursday, Jan. 16, President Bill Clinton took a break from a series of conferences and meetings held this week here in the Coachella Valley—dealing with health initiatives and economic development—to join legendary golfer Gary Player and PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem at the official opening ceremony of the 2014 Humana Challenge Golf Tournament.

Afterward, he spent a few hours at the Arnold Palmer Private Course in La Quinta talking with some of the professional golfers and fans in attendance.

"President Clinton and I have been friends for 30 years," said Marjorie Seawell, vacationing here from Denver, after she spoke with the former president at some length. "I got to know him first in the National Governors Association, and we became fast friends. Every time we find ourselves in the same place, we try to get together. He's a special friend."

The Clinton Foundation held its annual Health Matters conference in La Quinta earlier this week.

Regarding his involvement with the tournament, President Clinton said during a nationally televised interview with the Golf Channel, "When we started this, Commissioner Finchem asked me if I would work with him to try to help salvage what was the old Bob Hope golf tournament—both for Bob’s memory, who I knew for the last 20 or so years of his life, and for the community that has done so much work and has raised so much money for charity with the help of the PGA Tour and the players."

He recalled an anecdote that Bob Hope shared with him. "He told me, ‘The only thing I ever did, even after I gave up golf, was that I walked an hour a day. And sometimes because I worked at night, it was at midnight. And sometimes because I was in London and it was raining—I took rubber boots.’ You’ve got to have something to do come rain or shine.”

Regarding his ongoing commitment to the Humana Challenge Golf Tournament, President Clinton commented, "We really work hard here. So does our sponsor, Humana, and I give them a lot of credit. They participate in our conference, and this year, we got another $11 million committed, and we’ve got enough money committed in the United States to touch 50 million more people with after-school programs for kids who need help and support. We’re trying to build a culture of wellness in America and make it a part of what we do.”

Published in Snapshot