Hope Classic short on stars, but those who are playing love being there

bubba watson
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Bubba Watson sees the Bob Hope Classic as a unique playing opportunity for both himself and his wife.
By
Greg Beacham
Associated Press

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Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 | 9:10 p.m.

Many golfers no longer give a second thought to the Bob Hope Classic. The Palm Springs area’s venerable pro-am is too long, too complicated and not lucrative enough for most pros.

Don’t tell that to Bubba Watson, who sees a unique opportunity where so many golfers only see a hassle.

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“I love playing golf. I play every day,” said Watson, who finished tied for second behind Bill Haas last year. “Me and my wife got here Saturday, played 30 holes on Sunday, played at a different course (Monday), and then she’s out playing right now.”

 Watson, Matt Kuchar and the rest of the field are soaking up the Hope’s picturesque setting and classic vibe while preparing to meet the unusual challenges of the PGA Tour’s only 90-hole, four-course event with three amateurs playing alongside each pro.

Most players aren’t scared away by the prospect of playing on four courses. They’re not particularly challenging courses, and the tour record for birdies is annually endangered.

Many top pros instead shy away from the Hope because of its five-day format and the grinding pace that often leads to six-hour rounds -- oh, and the glitzier Abu Dhabi Championship, which happens concurrently and is becoming more popular every year. In Abu Dhabi this week are all four reigning major champions -- including Phil Mickelson, who lives in nearby San Diego but flew halfway around the globe anyway -- and world No. 1 Lee Westwood.

“I always used to skip the Hope because of that,” Kuchar said. “I felt like, how am I ever going to get practice rounds in? It seems like it’s just a little too much to handle.”

Kuchar changed his mind after making a preseason practice trip to Palm Springs a few years ago and loving the Coachella Valley.

“You wake up in the morning, and it feels like they’re pumping oxygen out there,” Kuchar said. “You feel like you’re playing inside a dome.”

Although the tournament still attracts an entertaining field of amateur playing partners -- Kurt Russell, Kevin Nealon, Peter Gallagher and athletes ranging from Julius Erving to Evan Longoria are playing this week -- it’s a far cry from the days when Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Clint Eastwood, Burt Lancaster and former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford filled the field.

The Hope Classic has no title sponsor for the third straight year. Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and a big chunk of the sport’s best players are in Abu Dhabi, while the Hope has just six of the top 50 -- an improvement from last year, when No. 37 Mike Weir was the top-ranked golfer in Palm Springs.

Yet Watson favors the Hope because his wife, Angie, a 6-foot-4 former WNBA player and multisport athlete, is playing among the amateurs for the second straight year. He’s also looking forward to getting back on the tour grind after the death of his father, Gerry, from cancer last October.

Watson is coming off a breakthrough season despite his father’s deteriorating health. He notched his first PGA victory and won nearly $3.2 million while finishing eighth in the FedExCup standings and playing in his first Ryder Cup -- albeit not playing very well.

“He was in the hospital getting fluids in him every day when I was at the Ryder Cup,” Watson said. “Not to bring that on the team, not to talk about it in the media, it was hard for me to go through, but it helped me because he wanted to see his son play in the Ryder Cup.”

Kuchar learned the benefits of playing a heavy early season schedule last year, when he followed up a third-place finish at the Sony Open with a second-place performance in Palm Springs.

“I always used to look at keeping my card early as one of my goals, always trying to make that number to stay in the top 125 and get somewhere close to a million dollars,” Kuchar said. “After a good week here at Kapalua and then a great showing at the Bob Hope (in 2010), it’s like, ‘All right, I’ve got that pretty well taken care of, and now moving onward to really try to have a great year.’ That was a confidence-booster, and a way to mark a notch off the checklist.”

After finishing tied for fifth at Kapalua last week, Kuchar is the highest-ranked player in the Hope field. He’s one of four Ryder Cup players along with Watson, Jeff Overton and Stewart Cink, who’s making his season debut at the Hope after a two-year absence from Palm Springs.

“It’s always good to come out and see the weather forecast and sunshine and zero percent chance of rain,” said Cink, who spent the past couple of weeks snowbound in Atlanta. “You know you’re going to play a lot of golf and get the repetitions in. It’s a great way to start the year, a good springboard.”