LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) — The timing couldn’t be better for Justin Rose, or for the Desert Classic.
Rose played so much golf toward the end of last year that he wasn’t quite ready to fly from his home in the Bahamas to Hawaii to start 2019 against a winners-only field at Kapalua. Instead, he decided to start at the Desert Classic, an event he has not played since 2010.
Because of the tight race at the top of the ranking, Rose returned to No. 1 in the world two weeks ago. That gives the Desert Classic the No. 1 player in its field for the first time since the ranking began in 1986.
“My original plan was to play in Maui and keep the momentum going, and then maybe take a bit of a break in February,” Rose said. “But it just came around too quick. … I also felt like it was important for me to play before getting to San Diego. So this fitted in perfectly.”
It’s a fresh start indeed for Rose, who won last year at Colonial and captured the FedEx Cup at the end of the season.
He has signed a new equipment deal with Japan-based Honma, which could include a new putter. He also will be starting the year with a new caddie, at least temporarily, because longtime looper Mark “Fooch” Fulcher is to undergo a heart procedure Thursday.
Rose will be using Gareth Lord, a prominent European Tour caddie who most recently worked for Henrik Stenson. That’s a natural fit as Rose and Stenson are close, having playing Ryder Cup matches together and even the team event last year in New Orleans.
“Always felt like my pairing with Henrik wasn’t just a two-man pairing, it was a four-man pairing with Henrik, with Fooch and Gareth Lord, as well,” Rose said. “So he’s a guy that I’m very comfortable on the golf course with and he’s a great mate of Fooch’s, and I’m happy that he’s doing us both a favor, me and Fooch.”
The defending champion is Jon Rahm, who last year went four extra holes before beating Andrew Landry in a playoff.
Rahm started his year two weeks ago with a tie for eighth at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. His previous start was a victory in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge, which seems like a long time ago.
Rahm went home to Spain and rarely touched a club, “so that kind of negates a little bit what I did at Hero.”
“My swing hasn’t changed in so long,” he said. “I haven’t changed my game plan or anything in my game, so it doesn’t usually take too long to get back to a good level. But hopefully, it’s good enough. I feel good. Swing feels good. Hopefully, I can show it again.”
No one has successfully defended since Johnny Miller in 1976.
Phil Mickelson makes his 2019 debut at the tournament he has won two times, but not since 2004. The Desert Classic dates to 1960 and with typically ideal conditions in the California desert, it is known for low scoring.
This is the only PGA Tour event that has produced two sub-60 rounds — Adam Hadwin shot 59 two years ago, and David Duval more famously closed with a 59 when he won the tournament 20 years ago.
Rose, meanwhile, will have to play well to stay at No. 1. The player he replaced, Brooks Koepka, is playing against a stronger field this week in Abu Dhabi.