The American Express is a much changed tournament. When Arnold Palmer won the inaugural edition in 1960 and for many years after, the 90-hole tournament was as well known for the stars who lined up for the huge celebrity pro-am. The name has changed several times over the year – most famously being known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic (or some variation on that name) between 1965 and 2011 – but it retained the large pro-am and the five rounds right up to 2012.
The American Express now takes place over the regulation four rounds of play but, as in previous editions, still takes place on multiple courses. Both the Stadium Course and the Nicklaus Course at PGA West in La Quinta, California are used for hosting duties, for what is one of the first PGA Tour events of the calendar year. It has been won by many of the greats, including Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and more recently Phil Mickelson (twice, in 2002 and 2004).
|2023||PGA West||Jon Rahm|
|2022||PGA West||Hudson Swafford|
|2021||PGA West||Si Woo Kim|
|2020||PGA West||Andrew Landry|
|2019||PGA West||Adam Long|
|2018||PGA West||Jon Rahm|
2023: Jon Rahm
Spanish Ace Jon Rahm continued an electrifying run of form with yet another success at this tournament in California. If discounting the non-ranking event of the Hero World Challenge, Rahm made it four wins in five starts in official tournaments, adding this success to victories in the Acciona Open De Espana, the DP World Tour Championship, and the Sentry Tournament of Champions. The only “blip” in this sequence came when finishing fourth in the CJ Cup. In early 2023 Rahm was simply the hottest player in the game, and by some margin.
Sitting six shots back with seven to play, Rahm needed a remarkable late comeback to win the Sentry, but no such fireworks were required here. Level with tournament rookie Davis Thompson headed into the final round, a steady four-under 68 was enough to take the title by one shot. The par five 16th proved to be the key hole. Rahm’s second shot flirted with danger but ultimately found the fairway, allowing him to leave a nine-foot putt for birdie. Dancing around the rim, the ball threatened not to go in but ultimately dropped to hand Rahm the one-shot lead which he would not relinquish.
This win moved Rahm clear at the top of the FedExCup standings. Thompson held on for an excellent second, whilst an amazing Albatross at the par-five fifth helped Xander Schauffele into a share of third with Chris Kirk.
2022: Hudson Swafford
The PGA Tour are never likely to replay Jon Rahm’s expletive-laden review of The American Express. The world number one let his emotions get the better of him as he bemoaned the easy setup of the three courses which he believed turned the tournament into a putting contest. Golf is a frustrating sport but Rahm knew what he was getting into when he signed up to compete in The American Express. While he was moaning, Hudson Swafford was busy getting on with the job. A job which he completed in stunning style, shooting a Sunday 64 to win the tournament by two shots.
Such was the competitiveness of the leaderboard on Sunday that nobody would have been surprised if extra holes had been required. Swafford had other ideas though, grabbing the tournament by the scruff of the neck with a back nine that included five birdies and an eagle. That was enough to see off Tom Hoge, Brian Harman, Lanto Griffin and Lee Hodges and thus to secure victory in The American Express for a second time.
As delighted as Swafford was with the quality of his play it was the emotion of it all that immediately hit home after the win. Swafford spoke of the poignancy of his son being onsite as he continues to come to terms with the loss of his father in December. “This was definitely a special one,” Swafford said afterwards. “A third win, and about a month ago my father passed away and his birthday was this week, so I know he was following and watching and to get it done, it was awesome.”
2021: Si Woo Kim
The American Express has gone by several different names over the years but whatever it has been called it has long had a reputation for final day drama. Low scores are gettable at PGA West’s Stadium Course and a year after Andrew Landry just about managed to hold off a fast finishing rival, Si Woo Kim did likewise in the 2021 renewal.
Patrick Cantlay was the man playing the role of hunter this time around. His magnificent final round of 61 was two shots better than the previous course record and came on the back of a round of 65 on Saturday for one of the best weekends in PGA Tour history. And yet Cantlay was still one shot short of getting into a playoff, such was the sustained brilliance of Kim.
Kim’s worst round was 68 and his best 64. Those numbers on a course which can bite shows that the South Korean’s game was in great shape all week and also that he has tremendous levels of concentration. The final stages of the tournament also showed that Kim can cope with pressure. He needed to birdie two of the final three holes to get back ahead of Cantlay and promptly did just that, his total of –23 just about good enough.
2020: Andrew Landry
The Stadium Course at PGA West features one of the toughest pair of closing holes on the PGA Tour and this can often lead to exciting finishes. Several players have had their hopes of winning the newly minted The American Express on those closing holes but Andrew Landry did the opposite in 2020. His performance on those closing two holes rescued what was turning into a nightmare final round, holding off the fast finishing Abraham Ancer for his second PGA Tour victory.
Landry’s lead was as big a six shots at one stage before things took a serious turn for the worse. While Landry’s game was falling apart, around him the Mexican Ancer was laying on tremendous pressure a few groups ahead with a blistering round of golf which matched the course record. Just when it looked as though the win had escaped him though, Landry managed to find his best golf once again with a couple of birdies on the very difficult pair of closing holes.
It was the change in emphasis to a more aggressive style of golf that brought about the required change for Landry. “It’s hard when you have a big lead because then you kind of start playing a little defensive,” he said when summing up his round. “Instead of playing defensive you need to be playing more aggressively and just keep hitting the shots that you need to hit.” He realised that just in time and his impressive 262 total was testament to that.
2019: Adam Long
Some golfers toil away for years and years without ever earning a win on the PGA Tour. Adam Long had to wait just six events. As if that wasn’t special enough for the 31-year-old, he earned the win by seeing off the challenge of Phil Mickelson courtesy of a 14 foot putt for birdie on the final hole.
Long was playing alongside Mickelson and Hadwin in the final group. Playing with all the attention of the fans and the television cameras on you is a huge pressure but sharing that burden with a player of Mickelson’s experience and popularity helped Long. Mickelson also helped Long considerably with that winning putt. “I got a pretty good read of Phil’s putt,” Long said. “It was one of those putts that you just stand over you just know you are going to make.” Feeling that sort of calmness and confidence in the biggest moment of his career to date was unexpected and surprising even to the man himself who summed it up saying, “I don’t really know what happened.”
If he got lucky in terms of the read for that final putt, there was no luck involved in the wonderful approach shot that set it up. His six iron from a very tricky downhill lie from 175 yards showed just how talented a golfer Long is and why this is unlikely to be the only winning moment in his career.
2018: Jon Rahm
Talent in itself is not enough to make it on the PGA Tour. There are lots of supremely talented golfers but only a select few who have the drive and grit required to make the most of their abilities and the mental fortitude to make it all the way to the top of this hugely demanding game. Jon Rahm is one of those golfers. The Spaniard proved that by toughing it out in the 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge (as this event was briefly called between 2016 and 2018) to win for the second time on the PGA Tour after a four hole playoff against the man who would go on to win in 2020, Andrew Landry.
Landry had shown plenty of grit of his own before the playoff. He was in the group ahead of Rahm and was always battling against the odds. However, he kept plugging away and played some very good golf which included a birdie on the 18th hole to force the playoff. Landry then kept pace with Rahm for three holes before the relentless brilliance of the winner made the difference with a birdie on the 18th hole.
Just like any golfer, Rahm would have loved to have won by a more comfortable margin but he saw the benefit in being pushed all the way. “Tournaments like this build character,” he said afterward. He has ample character to draw upon in the years to come where he is sure to be in and around his new world ranking of second. “I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now,” was how Rahm summed up his ascent and there is no chance of him slowing down now.