Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)


The Hero World Challenge might seem like a tropical vacation, but important work is being done

December 05, 2019
Hero World Challenge - Preview Day 2

David Cannon

NEW PROVIDENCE, Bahamas — The lush, tropical environs; the posh surroundings of Albany, an exclusive, 600-acre private resort community owned by British billionaire Joe Lewis, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and pop superstar Justin Timberlake; and an India Nite celebration, where on Thursday evening the attire is beach chic and the food and performers the best that country has to offer, no expense spared.

Never mind a no-cut, star-laden 18-man field; a $1 million check to the winner and $100,000 to last place; and more World Ranking points (46) for this year’s champion than the winners of 16(!) PGA Tour events from the 2018-'19 season.

If it sounds like the Hero World Challenge is something between a working vacation and a week of the rich getting richer—or both—well, it is.

Some of the sport’s biggest names are teeing it up, as usual, and why not? Everyone has one reason or another. “You got a chance to jump up in the World Ranking with a lot of guys not playing this week,” said Kevin Kisner.

In the middle of the pack midway through the tournament, Kisner, No. 37 in the world, likely won’t climb much if at all. But there are other goals that can be accomplished.

“It’s a really tough place on short game,” he said of Albany. “Plus it’s a nice lead-up to next year, so I don’t take too much time off. I took a lot of time off after the Tour Championship [in August] so I’m just trying to work on my tempo and rhythm and smooth out the transition in my swing. It’s a good test and it’s windy with difficult tee shots for my eye line.

“Plus I didn’t want to sit at home in the cold and not do anything.”

Temperatures in the Bahamas this week have barely cracked the 70s, or only about 10 degrees warmer than Aiken, S.C., where Kisner lives, but you get the idea. He’s not the only one.

Jordan Spieth hasn’t won in two-plus years, has plummeted to 44th in the world and needed an exemption just to get into the field, with the first 16 spots determined by World Ranking and the last two reserved for tournament invites. It’s a good time and place for him to work on his work-in-progress swing, away from the glare and demands of big-time tournament golf and instead in front of just a smattering of spectators.

“It's a little easier when you're not, you know, having to play a full schedule when every day you wake up you're like, I know that I'm not there but I've got to go do it anyways. That gets tough sometimes,” he said. “So it's nice to have the offseason and play a few events … I think [it’s] good timing for me.”

Spieth opened with rounds of 75 and 70 and is just two strokes out of last.

One of the players Spieth is tied with? Bubba Watson, who also has an eye on 2020 after a winless 2019.

Wednesday, with the wind up, Watson worked keeping the ball back in his stance, hitting low, driving shots through the breeze. A day later, he found himself getting stuck but saw improvement on the back nine. Plus, he got to play with Tiger Woods in the second round.

“His swing is so smooth right now,” he said of Woods. “Nothing was rushed.”

Speaking of Woods, he shot 66 on Thursday, six lower than he did the day before. He also has the busiest week of anyone in the field. In addition to being the tournament’s host, he’ll serve as playing captain for the U.S. at next week’s Presidents Cup in Australia. Of the 12 Americans on the team, 11 of them are in the field at the Hero, which means Tiger's tournament also serves as a nice entree.

“It’s a very laid-back week,” said Xander Schauffele. “I’m trying not to be that laid back, though. I took a month off and was looking forward to getting that competitive itch going. My decision making is a little rusty right now, which is fine because I can clean it up by next week.

“But this week is important. Everyone is spending a little more time on the range, a little more time on the putting green, trying to chip a little bit more to get everything in tune for next week.”

Well, not everyone. The defending champ, Jon Rahm, is from Spain and isn’t eligible for the Presidents Cup. Instead, he’ll be preparing for something much bigger: Getting married.

First things first, though.

Said Rahm, who is tied for third, four strokes back after a 66 on Thursday: “I came to win.”