Five to Watch at the 2016 CareerBuilder Challenge

Phil Mickelson
USA Today Sports Images
Phil Mickelson is making his first start of the 2015-16 season this week, and everyone's curious about the state of his game.
By John Holmes

Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 | 4:28 p.m.
After two weeks in beautiful Hawaii, the PGA Tour returns to the mainland this week for the first of five straight weeks in California and Arizona. The CareerBuilder Challenge, in case you missed the announcement, is the new name for what used to be called the Humana Challenge and was for many years previously the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
The courses in the tournament's rotation this year are the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West (that's the host course), the Tournament Course at PGA West and La Quinta Country Club. These are all familiar Palm Springs-area layouts, and it'll be interesting to see if they play any differently this week after all the rain southern California has gotten in recent months.
So who will we be keeping our eyes on this week? 
5. Charley Hoffman 
Best finish in 2015-16 season: Missed Cut Shriners Hospitals for Children Open
Reason to watch: Hoffman won this event the very first time he played it, back in 2007, and he's been a regular here ever since. Even more impressive is his recent trajectory: He tied for 10th here in 2013, tied for ninth in 2014 and then tied for second last year. This is his first start of 2016, so he's likely been focusing on desert golf for a few weeks now. And one other thing: His outgoing yet laid-back personality is a plus in a pro-am event like this.
4. Zac Blair 
Best finish in 2015-16 season: 3 Sony Open
Reason to watch: An overview of Blair's recent performance doesn't give a lot of hope – he's 45th in Driving Accuracy, 190th in Driving Distance and 216th in Greens in Regulation so far this season. But his putter was something to behold last week in Honolulu, where he finished third as he missed the Gomez-Snedeker playoff by a shot. He finished second in Strokes Gained Putting at the Sony, but is on my list this week because I'm eager to see if he can keep that flatstick firing.
3. Bill Haas 
Best finish in 2015-16 season: T18 Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Reason to watch: Haas is a Carolina guy born and raised, but something about the California desert really works for him. Of his six PGA Tour wins, two came right here – last year, of course, and in 2010. He also has six top-10s here, including a playoff loss in 2011. He's making his 12th straight appearance in this event, so he clearly likes it, and all his success has made him the tournament's all-time leading money winner.
2. Patrick Reed 
Best finish in 2015-16 season: 2 Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Reason to watch: Reed is a consensus favorite this week, and with good reason. He earned his PGA Tour card in the Q-School finals at PGA West back in 2012, and won this event in 2014 with a record-setting total of 28 under par. To go along with those great memories is his recent form: He's recorded seven straight top-10 finishes around the globe coming into this week. He also leads the PGA Tour in scrambling and is second in Total Strokes Gained.
1. Phil Mickelson 
Best finish in 2015-16 season: This is his first start
Reason to watch: Phil the Thrill tops our list not because he's a two-time champion here or because we necessarily think he's going make it three this week. No, it's because this is his first PGA Tour start of the 2015-16 season, as well as his first tournament after splitting with longtime coach Butch Harmon and teaming up with new swing guru Andrew Getson. Mickelson, 45, was disappointed not to win last season, and we're very curious to check out the state of both his game and his mindset as he begins another run at the majors – and potentially his 11th Ryder Cup team.
SLEEPER PICK: Ryan Palmer 
Best finish in 2015-16 season: T13 Sony Open
Reason to watch: I can't guarantee that the stats will back me up all the way, but it seems like Palmer is one of those guys who does much of his damage in the early and late portions of the PGA Tour schedule – his three wins have been in October, November and January. He's done well in this event, too, with a tie for sixth in 2013, a solo second in 2014 and a tie for 10th last year, and is coming off a solid tie for 13th in Honolulu. 
Here's how T.J. Auclair's five to watch fared last week at the Sony Open:
5. Russell Henley -- Cut
4. Brandt Snedeker -- Second
3. Zach Johnson – Tied for ninth
2. Matt Kuchar – Tied for 13th
1. Jimmy Walker – Tied for 13th