by Will Gray (Golf Channel)
This week marks the ninth event of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, as players return to the mainland for the Humana Challenge after two weeks in Hawaii. A rotation of three courses will play host to 156 players this week, each hoping to outlast their competition in an event that annually turns into a birdie barrage.
Brian Gay returns to defend the title he won last year in a playoff over Charles Howell III and David Lingmerth. Here are 10 players to watch this week in California:
1. Zach Johnson: Continues to serve as the hottest hand in golf. After wins at Sherwood and Kapalua, Johnson tied for eighth last week at Waialae and now will look to continue his hot streak at an event where he has never finished outside the top 25 in three career starts.
2. Keegan Bradley: After a 2013 season in which he netted seven top-10 finishes, Bradley now begins his year in the desert, where he tied for seventh in his lone appearance (2011). The former PGA champ was a mainstay on leaderboards last year and should get the new year off to a strong start this week.
3. Harris English: Quickly separating himself as one of the top rising stars in the game. English contended down the stretch before finishing fourth in Honolulu last week and now has three top-10 finishes this season, including a win at Mayakoba. The Georgia resident clearly feels comfortable with his new equipment and tied for 19th at this event in 2012.
4. Webb Simpson: Don't look now, but Simpson has quietly compiled a stretch of five consecutive top-seven finishes, dating back to the Tour Championship and including his win in Vegas. The former U.S. Open champ missed the cut here last year but has two other top-15 finishes at PGA West since 2009.
5. Charles Howell III: Howell nearly ended his winless drought here a year ago, missing a short putt before ultimately falling in a playoff. He'll look to avenge that loss this year as he returns off a T-8 finish at Sony, once again in search of world ranking points as he looks to climb into the fields for both the WGC-Accenture and Masters fields in the coming weeks.
6. Brandt Snedeker: The former FedEx Cup champ has cracked the top 25 three of the last four years at this event, and tied for 11th at Kapalua in his return from a knee injury. Sneds is no stranger to starting quickly in a new year and should be able to convert more than his fair share of birdie opportunities this week.
7. Robert Garrigus: One of the Tour's longest hitters, Garrigus was a runner-up here in 2012 and has finished inside the top 20 in four of five career Humana starts. Making his first start of 2014 but already has three top-25s to his credit during the wraparound season.
8. Bill Haas: Haas followed his win here in 2010 with a playoff loss in 2011, though he has struggled somewhat in the two years since. He clearly has an affinity for desert golf, notching five top-25s while teeing it up here every year since 2005, and has started the new season with a trio of top-25s.
9. Matt Jones: The Aussie played some great golf down the stretch in 2013 and has had success at this event, with four prior starts each netting a T-29 result or better. Finished last season 13th on Tour in the all-around ranking and should be on a short list of players poised to break through for a maiden victory this year.
10. Jason Kokrak: The bomber notched a solid T-20 last week at Waialae, his third top-20 finish in four starts to begin the new season. Kokrak has now shot 70 or better in 12 of 14 competitive rounds in 2013-14 and knows what it takes to go low at this event, having tied for eighth a year ago after opening with a 63.