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    • Warm weather, red numbers greet players at Humana Challenge

    • The Humana Challenge is expected to bring low numbers during the next four days. The Humana Challenge is expected to bring low numbers during the next four days.

    LA QUINTA, Calif. – The Coachella Valley is a popular destination for people trying to escape winter’s wrath. Count PGA TOUR players among that group.

    This week’s Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation provides a relaxing week where players can (usually) expect ideal weather. There’s a reason playing here is likened to competing in a dome. No AstroTurf here, though. Highs in the 80s and courses set up to accommodate amateur competitors (the Humana is one of two TOUR events where amateurs compete alongside the pros during tournament competition) allow TOUR pros to see plenty of red numbers early in the calendar year.

    “We all knew we were going to come to a place where the weather was good, and we could work on our games,” said Peter Jacobsen, the 1990 Humana champion. “It was early in the year, and the courses were not demanding to where you had to worry about shooting great scores. You knew you could make birdies and eagles. And I think that works well for the players and their confidence going into the year.”

    There’s a relaxed feel to this week. Players can use carts in practice rounds to help hasten the process of learning the three courses used this week. The mountains that border PGA West provide scenic shots for the television cameras and are home to the bighorn sheep that occasionally venture onto the course, but also ensure that darkness comes quickly on the driving range that sits between the two PGA West courses in use this week. That makes for short work days.

    The high temperature is scheduled to be in the mid-80s all week, while it’s doubtful the field’s scoring average will creep above 70. Last year’s scoring average was 68.8 strokes. The average score in the final round, when the entire field played PGA West’s Palmer Private Course, was 67.8 strokes.

    The Humana’s three courses – PGA West’s Palmer Private and Nicklaus Private, and La Quinta Country Club – were the three easiest courses on TOUR during the 2013 season. Nicklaus Private played to a 68.0 scoring average, followed by Palmer Private (68.9) and La Quinta (69.5). There were 2,820 birdies at last year’s event, as well as 111 eagles.

    “You know what you have to do when you step on the first tee,” said Scott Stallings, who held the 54-hole lead last year before finishing fourth. “It’s nice to come out and have a chance to be aggressive.”

    Stallings saw first-hand how low you have to go at the Humana. He was five shots ahead of the field after three rounds last year, but his 2-under 70 in the final round left him one shot out of a three-way playoff eventually won by Brian Gay.

    La Quinta Country Club plays 7,060 yards, while both the Nicklaus Private (6,924) and Palmer Private (6,950) are both shorter than 7,000 yards. There is a 54-hole cut this week, as each player plays one round at each course. The final round is held at the Palmer Private course, where David Duval shot his final-round 59 to win in 1999. Last year’s cut fell at 10-under 206.

    “You get three rounds no matter what to try to get yourself going for the year,” said Brendan Steele, who’s from nearby Idyllwild. “It’s a nice way to ease into the year.”

    The shorter courses explain why the champions’ list features players with contrasting styles. The past two winners – Gay (2013) and Mark Wilson (2012) – both ranked outside the top 150 in driving distance in the years they won. The 2011 event was a showdown between two of the TOUR’s longest hitters, Jhonattan Vegas and Gary Woodland. Vegas won a playoff between the two (Bill Haas was eliminated on the first extra hole), completing an improbable journey from the oil camps of Venezuela to the PGA TOUR winner’s circle.

    Vegas is playing this season on a medical extension after sitting out from February until October of last year because of surgery on his left shoulder. He became the first rookie to lead the FedExCup standings at any point of a season when he followed his Humana win with a third-place finish at the following week’s Farmers Insurance Open. He’s had just three top-10s in the three years since. Vegas, who said he started battling the shoulder injury in the middle of his rookie season, played just three TOUR events in the 2013 season before electing to have surgery.

    Other familiar names starting the year on medical extensions are Kevin Na, Retief Goosen and Jonathan Byrd, all of whom are in the field this week. Na already has two top-10s this season, including a T-8 at last week’s Sony Open in Hawaii; he made just eight PGA TOUR starts in the 2013 season because of a back injury. Goosen also finished eighth last week. It was Goosen’s first top-10 since last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am; he made just nine TOUR starts in the 2013 season.

    Some players in the field could benefit from seeing some birdies after sub-par 2013 seasons. Bo Van Pelt had just one top-10 in 2013 after recording 10 the previous season. He failed to advance to the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola for the first time since 2009.

    Carl Pettersson also had just one top-10 in 2013. Last year was just the second time he finished outside the top 50 in the final FedExCup standings (2009). He finished 107th in the 2013 FedExCup standings after finishing 24th the previous season thanks to a victory and three other top-three finishes.

    Ben Crane struggled with back injuries in 2013 and posted just two top-10s. He finished 125th in the FedExCup standings, his worst finish since an abbreviated 2007 season.

    The Humana Challenge is the perfect place to get their confidence going again. Birdies are abundant, and necessary.

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