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.