As the car manufacturer who provides the title-sponsor eye candy for this week will tell you, it’s all about “luxury evolved.” That is The Riv. Riviera Country Club is the perfect climax to the West Coast Swing on the PGA Tour. A trek that starts with unmatched vistas in Hawaii, includes two iconic coastal courses and an epic party in between, finishes on, arguably, the best pure golf course of them all. One more week before we head east and really begin the countdown to the Masters. Au revoir, la cote ouest. See?! Luxurious.
The Course – The gem in George Thomas’ portfolio (he also designed Bel-Air Country Club and LA Country Club), Riviera Country Club weaves its way through a Pacific Palisades’ valley, with massive mansions looming on the cliffs above. Everything from the drive through La-La Land’s glitziest neighborhoods, to the iconic clubhouse atop the highest point on the property scream exclusivity. Celebrating 90 years this year, the course is often forgotten as one of the country’s best. The par 71 stretches over 7,300 yards and requires every shot in the bag. Like any old course, the character is in the greens. Last time putting on poa for a while for Tour pros (Sorry, Sneds) with greens that are only 5,000 square feet on average.
Last Year – Bubba Watson birdied his 70th and 71st holes of the week, navigated the par-4 18th in four strokes and bested Adam Scott and Jason Kokrak by one shot. It was his second career win at the Riv, a course that invites creativity on almost every tee shot, something vital to Watson’s visual imagination.
[graphiq id=”7hNFtw6L5e5″ title=”Bubba Watson 2017 PGA Tour Earnings and Positions” width=”800″ height=”565″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/7hNFtw6L5e5″ ]
This Year – The cream has risen to the top early since the calendar flipped years. There are already five worldwide wins from the top 10 in the world. Jordan Spieth’s victory last weekend provided a steadying affirmation that he is (and always was) just fine. The fact that it came on the heels of another Tiger Woods extended break announcement was a bonus. Woods’ foundation is the host this week, and even with Tiger not in the field, his presence is felt, but is it needed? Golf’s best continue to deliver, and a world-class field this week should make for lively discussion about how strong the game is in yet another post-Tiger malaise.
The Field – Eight of the top 10 in the world will peg it, as this week typically marks the arrival of many international golfers in advance of WGCs and majors. Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia make their domestic debuts. The two hottest golfers of this PGA Tour season, Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Thomas, are back after a week of rest. Jordan Spieth dueled Thomas at Riviera for the 2012 NCAA national championship, and last week’s winner is in. Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed too?!? Best field of 2017 so far. Anywhere.
Weather – As soon as players were met with cold, wet weather in Coachella Valley last month, the West Coast swing felt doomed. Break out the rain gear again. After a lovely start to the week, heavy rains and wind are expected to pelt the course on Friday, with lingering showers on the days sandwiching a potential washout. It could be a slog by the weekend. Pack the sweater too.
Holes to Watch – There are so many holes to choose from, including the iconic, dogleg right 18th, all uphill. The first hole is a par 4 masquerading as a par 5. The top six players played it at 26-under last year for the week! That’s a scoring average of 3.91, more than a stroke under par!
But the best pure golf hole on the course is, no doubt, the par-4 10th. It is a 315-yard hole, drivable by today’s standards, and it struggles to play under par. Why? The design is perfect. The green is tiny and falls off in every direction, with the depth running from left to right as you look from the tee. Go for it, and you risk an impossible chip, with bunkers guarding short, long and right. The safe play is to lay up as far left as possible, opening up the green. Even then, however, you’re not safe. Less than 60% of all shots inside of 75 yards hit the green in regulation. That’s astonishing for the best players in the world. You expect to make birdie, but four pars on the card during the week is nothing to shake your head at.
Spieth’s Tiger Hunt – Spieth has matched Tiger’s winning pace at this stage of their lives with last week’s win. He is playing in a Tiger event this week. There will be a lot of talk. Even Spieth knows that it’s a silly conversation. “I don’t think anyone’s going to win at the same percentage that Tiger won at,” Spieth said. “I started earlier than he did. No, I don’t think it’s fair to necessarily compare to it.”
He’s right, but it’s going to happen. He’s taken more starts to get to nine wins, but his swing isn’t violent like Tiger (or Day, or Thomas), which means he should experience a lengthy career. Spieth isn’t done winning this year, and you know he would love to head to Florida with all of the attention.
Tiger’s Take – He speaks on Wednesday morning, with a growing anticipation to hear directly from the man who disappeared with back spasms from Dubai a couple weeks ago. How candid will he be about his struggles? Will he respond to reports about his continuing aggressive workouts? There is greatness surrounding the field in this event. How does he recognize that?
Championship Pedigree – At Riviera, it’s all about opportunities and not missing greens. The top seven in last year’s tournament all ranked in the top 12 in strokes gained tee to green. The leaderboard will always be a mix of bombers and those handy with a wedge around the green. It’s a course that rewards good golf, no matter the type of player. With wet and windy conditions, length may be a bit more important, but confident, hot hands may rule this week.
Top Five –
Dustin Johnson – It’s as if every player is taking a number, waiting patiently in line, and then walking into the winner’s circle. If you remove the MC, post jet lag, at Torrey, he’s gone T6, T2, 3 in starts this year. Once he figured out how to navigate Riviera, he’s posted top 4 finishes in four of his last five starts. He is due in so many ways. Oh, and he could also rise to #1 in the world with a win and some math.
Jordan Spieth – Raising his ranking this week more due to the weather than his tremendous form. He has a national championship on this course, and finished T4 during his breakout season in 2015. His form now reminds many of two years ago, so why not again? Plus, the best short game on Tour may be tested in challenging conditions. His wedge and putter can overcome Mother Nature… again.
Sergio Garcia – This feels like the year of Sergio, so why not debut domestically with a W? Already a worldwide winner, this is a course that sets up beautifully for his driving ability and short game creativity. He also owns one of the greatest pars this author ever witnessed on this course. After clipping a tree WAY right on the 13th hole, he was on the downslope of a green-side bunker on 10. He carved a little filet of a shot through two trees back into play and got up and down for a 4. Words can’t do it justice. It’s the little things.
Adam Scott – Running a little bit of a risk here with only one start this year, in Singapore of all places. He has feasted on this course in his career with two runner-up performances, including last year, and an unofficial win in a 36-hole washout in 2005. Feels like a boom or bust pick, but hard to leave him off the list.
Hideki Matsuyama – Took a week off after the playoff win in Scottsdale, but nobody is more automatic than the Japanese superstar. Like Johnson, he can also rise to #1 in the world with a win and some help. He has never missed the cut at Riviera and has an insane 13 top 10’s and five wins since he last teed it up at this tournament.
One-and-Done Fantasy Consideration (if you can only take a player once all season) – Lots of star power to pick from. Has Phil Mickelson exhausted himself yet? His track record at Riviera is great, but the gas tank may be running low. The top five above should probably be saved for later in the year. What about defending champion Bubba Watson? He really hasn’t shown much form since this time a year ago, which means he may not crack your roster all year. He has six top 10 finishes in 10 starts here, including two wins. Of course, he hasn’t seen the weekend the other four trips. It’s a risk, but it could pay off big!
Fantasy Tip – With so many good players at Riviera, avoid the high-priced guys atop your list. Spieth or Matsuyama may win this week, but you mortgage the rest of your roster in order to afford him. Get fat this week by filling up on mid-priced stars, like Mickelson, Paul Casey, Brandt Snedeker or even Charl Schwartzel, who has played well at Riviera.