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Culp's Corner

The American Express Preview

by Josh Culp
Updated On: January 19, 2021, 6:03 pm ET

It's time for the PGA TOUR to head back to the mainland after a few weeks in Hawaii. 

Next on the docket is The American Express which takes place at PGA WEST in La Quinta, California.

Historically, this has been played as a pro-am format event with each golfer getting assigned a playing partner. They had to use three courses to manage daylight with that format, but there are some changes for the 2021 edition. 

The field still remains full at 156 golfers but they will not be playing the pro-am portion of the event this year, due to the pandemic. Amazingly, they are still finding a way to exceed last year in terms of charitable donations which all go to local charities in the Coachella Valley. 

Okay, so with no pro-am format, does that mean they will utilize just one course now? Not quite. They will split the difference by using two courses. This is still mid-January where daylight is a concern when it comes to getting 156 golfers through in one day. The Stadium Course at PGA WEST and the Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA WEST will be the two courses used on Thursday and Friday before a 36-hole cut will be made of top 65 and ties for the weekend. From there, golfers will do battle with the host course (Stadium). 


The Courses

The host course will see even more action this year as it's being used on three days instead of just two. It should be our primary focus when looking at fit or comfort factor. Of course, some golfers just love it in the area, or playing desert golf, so the minor differences between the courses won't bother them. 

Stadium Course at PGA WEST (Host Course): 

This Pete Dye design was known as a sequel to TPC Sawgrass. It's been the host venue of this event since the 2016 edition. It was also one of four courses utilized in the 1987 edition. Golfers did not speak fondly of it back then and it was pushed aside for decades. 

It's a par 72 that plays at just 7,147 yards on the scorecard. Short by modern-day standards. 

The most obvious similarity between the Stadium Course and TPC Sawgrass is all of the water that comes into play. Big numbers are lurking around every corner at the Stadium Course. When looking at the percentage of double bogeys or worse recorded per round, it sits behind just PGA National, TPC Sawgrass, Muirfield Village, TPC Southwind, and Sheshan in terms of courses that are on the regular rota. 

Yet, the Stadium Course plays much easier than all of those courses above because there is also a boatload of birdie holes. In fact, seven of the holes have a birdie-or-better rate of over 28% for the field. 

When looking for those birdie holes, all four of the par 5s fall in that bucket and so do the par-4 2nd, 7th, and 12th. All three of those holes sit under 375 yards. 

It's not a course where you need distance but it also doesn't really restrict your distance either. All skillsets are in play. 

Overall, we should look at the Stadium Course as a risk-reward course that will yield a fair amount of low scores but also some blowup rounds mixed in as well. You'll have some rounds in between, some "psycho scorecards" if you will. Rounds where a golfer rattles off five birdies and an eagle but also pumps four balls into the water, as an extreme example.

For turf, golfers will see a bermuda base that is dormant this time of year. The course was overseeded in October so it's had plenty of time to grow in so we should forget the bermuda is even there. Historically they've run the greens around 11 feet on the stimp but without amateurs in the field, perhaps they will ramp them up a notch this year. To be determined.

The same can be said about the course setup in general. Without amateurs in the field, they do have the opportunity to showcase some tougher pin placements and grow the rough if they want. We'll need to wait for pre-tourney pressers to see if there are any dramatic differences this year in terms of expected scoring conditions. For now, I'm still expecting the winner to flirt with or exceed 20-under on the week. 


Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA WEST: 

This course has been in the rota since the 2016 edition of this event. It is a par 72 that sits at 7,181 yards on the scorecard. Also pretty short by TOUR standards. 

Golfers will play the Nicklaus Tournament Course just once this week. 

Three of the four par 5s sit under 550 yards so you can expect birdies and eagles to fly off the shelves here. 

Unlike the host course, the Nicklaus Tourney Course has water on just five holes and doesn't produce as many big numbers. Golfers average around 1.2 doubles or worse per 72 holes here which is lower than the TOUR average (1.49). 

This is a course where wedges and short-iron play is crucial. There are just two par 4s over 445 yards so you can fire away at flagsticks. It's no surprise to see that eight of the holes have a birdie-or-better rate that sits over 25% for the field. This is a very fantasy friendly course.

Similar to the Stadium Course, golfers will see dormant bermuda that has been overseeded with ryegrass from tee-to-green and poa trivialis on the greens. Gamers looking at turf splits would be wiser to look at bent/poa stats this week. Think that's crazy? Just listen to course horse Adam Hadwin talk about the grass here: "I haven't played Honda the last few years primarily because of the Bermuda issue and the wind. Tampa is overseeded, so there might be a little bit of grain in the greens, but not much. Now THE PLAYERS will be overseeded. And then Bay Hill's the same way. So it's kind of one of those weird things where really the only one is PGA National. But to your point, I do feel like the West Coast is kind of where I make hay a little bit, get the year started off on a good note and then even though summer months when we run into some of the other Bermuda golf courses and stuff, I don't, I just haven't fared as well, I just haven't figured it out yet, I don't know whether it's going to jump or fluff or and I haven't figured out around the greens, whereas this grass it's much more predictable for me" 

Overall, the Nicklaus Tournament Course is a birdiefest and it's where you should lean on single-round formats if you want a more reliable score from your golfers. There will be low rounds on the Stadium Course too, but there are fewer blowup rounds on the Nick Tourney. 


Course Quotes

Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.

Phil Mickelson: "my goal or game plan of playing the Stadium Course is to actually hit drivers and to try to bomb it down there as close to the greens as you can. Even though the — because the fairways are tight in a lot of areas and if I miss fairways, try to have wedges or short irons in — and it seemed to play out okay today and I gave myself a lot of good chances."

Hudson Swafford: "I think you need to hit your irons well here. I think you need to give yourself as many birdie opportunities as possible. Putting is a big part of this event, but the greens are a little tricky to read with the overseed." 

Tony Finau: "A lot of great memories here and specifically I feel like my life changed here in 2013. I got through qualifying school for the first time in my career. " 

Adam Hadwin: "living in Phoenix these past few years, this is the golf that I play every day. So that overseeded, the greens are exactly what we play back in Scottsdale. So I would assume that might add to some of the comfort. It’s really hard to pinpoint. For whatever reason as soon as I get down here in the desert I start playing some good golf. "

Patrick Reed: "unlike at Q-School, the pins are a little bit more accessible, because you’re playing with amateurs as well, they’re not going to put pins three paces from the edge, because then you might not finish. So, they put the pins a little bit more accessible, that’s why you see a little lower scores. If they were to tuck the pins like they normally do on PGA TOUR weeks, the score would get cut in half. Because now you’re hitting some 6-irons and 5-irons and 7-irons into greens and you’re able to go flag hunting." 

Golfers often bring up Q-School memories when it comes to playing the Stadium Course. Reed talks about how the course setup dictates a lot of the low scores. Again, we'll need to listen to pre-tournament interviews to decide whether that will drastically impact the scoring conditions this year. 


Correlated Courses

Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week: 

TPC Scottsdale
Quail Hollow
Innisbrook Resort (Copperhead)

Innisbrook shares a similar turf setup with overseeded conditions. The Scottsdale desert connection is also a big one that golfers also mention a lot. 


The Weather

Thursday: Mostly sunny with a high of 74 degrees. Winds light and variable, under 10 MPH. 

Friday: A mix of clouds and sunshine. High of 70 degrees. Winds at 5 to 10 MPH. 

The winds are calm this week (as usual) and the chance of precipitation sits under 20% on three of the four days. The biggest chance of showers comes on Saturday (40%). 

Josh Culp

Josh Culp joined NBC Sports Edge in 2014. The DFS enthusiast from Iowa State can be found on Twitter @futureoffantasy.