LA QUINTA, Calif.—When Mark Wilson got to 8 under through 11 holes on the Palmer Private course Friday, he seriously discussed golf’s magic number with playing partner Harrison Frazar, who once shot a 59 on another Humana Challenge course.
“I don’t know why the conversation went there … but I thought about it,” Wilson said.
Wilson ended up posting the lowest score of his career, and that 62 wasn’t even the best round of the day in the desert. Bob Hope’s name is no longer on this reformatted tournament, but its tradition of stunningly low scores is still going strong.
Wilson pulled even with Ben Crane and David Toms at 16-under 128 to share a three-stroke lead after the second round of the Humana Challenge on Friday, topping a leaderboard covered with bogey-free rounds and personal bests.
Extremely low numbers always dominate the erstwhile Bob Hope Classic, which features two of the PGA Tour’s three easiest courses. Add a second day of ideal Palm Springs weather, and exceptional play is necessary just to stay in contention.
For example, Ryan Moore tied the Nicklaus course record with a 61, yet he was still five strokes back of the lead—and he wasn’t even among 23 players who played bogey-free rounds Friday.
“Everything has been much improved, and we got a much better field because of it,” said Crane, who had just 48 putts in his first two rounds.
“This is a great place for players to start their year, because it’s like playing indoors.”
To illustrate his point, Crane mimed his caddie picking grass blades and dropping them from shoulder height.
“I’m like, `Where’s the wind?”’ Crane said. “He’s like, `I don’t know.’ I’m like, `OK, let’s just hit a normal shot here.”’
Crane shot a 63 on the three-course tournament’s Palmer Private course, and Toms had a 65 on the Nicklaus Private course to match Wilson at 16-under 128. Rookie Harris English had a 62 on the Nicklaus Private course to join five players in fourth place at 13 under.
“That’s what you’ve got to do out here,” said English, the University of Georgia graduate playing his sixth round on the PGA Tour. “Put it in the fairway and then try to go out and get after it. I was getting my putter hot, and it was a lot of fun.”
Moore tied Charlie Wi’s 2009 record on the Nicklaus course despite starting with consecutive bogeys on his second and third holes before an eagle on the fourth. He then birdied 11 of 12 holes, including six straight around the turn.
“Really the last thing I remember was being 2 over through three, and then I just walked off the 18th hole,” said Moore, who rose 103 spots on the leaderboard. “Maybe that just freed me up. I just let go. … I don’t know if I ever putted that good in my entire life.”
Wilson earned a reputation as a fast starter when he won in Hawaii and Phoenix during the first five weeks of last season. He also gets a boost from his offseason connection to the Coachella Valley, including a membership at the Ironwood Country Club near his in-laws’ home in Palm Desert.“It’s always been very good to me, and then Q-school has been good to me in the desert,” Wilson said. “I get a lot of good vibes here.”
Toms shot a fairly pedestrian 65 on the Nicklaus course with a second straight day of steady play—but not everybody chewed up the three courses. Toms’ playing partner, Phil Mickelson, shot a 69, but remained well back of the leaders after opening with a 74.
“I’m excited about how I was playing heading into this tournament, but I had a bit of a slap in the face with my first two scores,” said Mickelson, who tried out a new driver Friday.
Mickelson is the tournament’s career money leader despite not playing in Palm Springs since 2007. He has made seven straight cuts, but sits in 124th place heading to the third round.
Dustin Johnson, the world No. 8 and the tournament’s top-ranked player, withdrew after nine holes Friday. The two-time Pebble Beach champion with exceptional power off the tee underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in November and hadn’t walked 18 holes until Thursday, when he started with an even-par 72.
Scott Stallings also withdrew before the round with an injured chest muscle.
Crane’s in-laws also live in the Valley, and he was grateful to play well in front of them after a rocky offseason in which he contemplated getting surgery on a labrum injury before learning he didn’t need it.
Instead, he spent the offseason working on his putting, which has been exceptional at the Humana. Crane also started with a bogey before an eagle-birdie run kick-started his round.
The plunging scores might level off on the weekend, with wind and clouds in the forecast for Saturday when President Bill Clinton plays a round with Greg Norman. Crane and his wife spoke with Clinton on Thursday, discussing their work with a foundation that battles sex trafficking.
“It’s really given this tournament a spark to have him around,” Crane said. “It’s been great for everybody in this tournament. It’s just grown so much in a year. The buzz is unbelievable, and it’s really fun to be a part of it.”