A strong field at Pebble Beach last week was stymied by Ted Potter Jr., a distant afterthought going into the week. Now, Potter will be challenged to repeat the task against an even stronger field at this week’s Genesis Open.
Famed Riviera Country Club in the outskirts of Los Angeles, California is the tournament venue, as it has been for the last 45 years, in addition to nine different years before that.
Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, and defending champion Dustin Johnson are among the most notable players taking their shots at this year’s edition.
1. DJ DEFENDS
For the second week in a row, the PGA Tour is playing at a venue that World No. 1 Dustin Johnson has dominated in the past.
At Riviera, he will be teeing it up as the defending champion, breaking through in 2017 after finishes of T4 or better without a win in his previous four attempts.
Nobody threatened DJ, especially during the 36 holes they played on Sunday due to weather delays, as his lead stretched to as many as nine strokes in round 3, before he was able to cruise in round 4, finishing five strokes clear of Scott Brown and Thomas Pieters.
In the new season, Johnson has entered just three events, but held at least a share of the 54-hole lead in all three. His finishes though, were not as consistent.
At October’s WGC-HSBC Champions in China, DJ held a seemingly-insurmountable six-shot advantage going into the final round, but an inscrutable final-round 5-over 77 allowed Justin Rose to catch him from eight strokes back.
It was a much different finish in Hawaii at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he transmuted a two-stroke 54-hole lead into an 8-stroke romp with a final round 8-under 65.
Then again, he found himself back atop the leaderboard through three, just last week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a tournament he had previously won on three occasions.
Holding the Sunday morning co-lead with an unheralded Ted Potter, Jr. who had not even finished in the top 10 of a Tour event since July of 2013, DJ was shockingly outplayed by the heavy underdog, shooting a final-round even-par 72 to finish runner-up by three strokes.
Johnson should absolutely be commended for how well he has played the first 54 holes in each of his three season appearances, but as a player who used to have a reputation for struggling on Sundays in majors, his recent bad habit of Sunday meltdowns should be concerning as well. How he responds this week at Riviera should be very telling.
2. TWO RED-HOT PLAYERS
The Genesis Open field contains two red-hot players who are coming off top-5 finishes at both last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the previous week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Both are players in long winless droughts who are extra motivated to break back into the winner’s circle.
The 47-year-old fan favorite has not won since the 2013 Open Championship, but over the past two weeks, he looks closer to winning form than he has in several years. He posted an impressive T5 in Phoenix, which would have been even better if not for a final hole double-bogey when the circumstances forced him to play the hole in an exceptionally aggressive fashion.
It was not his best finish of the season up to that point, as he had posted a T3 at the season-opening Safeway Open, but it was an extremely encouraging result after some recent poor finishes coming off his winter sabbatical.
At Pebble Beach, a place Phil had won four times prior, a late birdie binge on Sunday led to his second runner-up performance in the past three editions of the tournament.
For the second consecutive week, he also needed a final-hole eagle to make things interesting, but was unable to get any closer to tournament champion Ted Potter, Jr. who won by three strokes.
Riviera, again, represents a place where Mickelson has been successful in the past.
Two of his 42 career victories have come at the Genesis Open, as he went back-to-back in 2008 and 2009. He also finished runner-up here in both 2007 and 2012. In most recent appearance, he posted a T34 just last year, opening with an impressive 4-under 67, but playing the rest of his week at even-par (71-73-69).
While the 36-year-old is trying to break from a winless drought that spans all the way back to 2008, Reavie has been even better over the past two weeks than the much more heralded Mickelson.
In Phoenix, Reavie birdied the last two holes to force a playoff with Gary Woodland. He lost the playoff, but the runner-up finish was his best result in a long time. In his response at Pebble Beach, Reavie again finished runner-up, tying with the formidable trio of Mickelson, Jason Day, and Dustin Johnson.
Reavie was in strong position to win on Sunday, as he went 5-under on the front nine to nip at Potter’s heels at the turn, but went stagnant on the back nine, as one bogey and eight pars meant a second-straight week in second place.
Reavie has been impressive all season, finishing in the top 25 in 8 of his 9 event appearances this season. He has been especially impressive tee-to-green this season, ranking 5th on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green off the strength of accurate driving (10th on Tour), a phenomenal approach game, and great touch around the greens.
Reavie missed the cut at Riviera last year, but was solo-seventh the year prior after opening the tournament 66-67. His recent form suggests he is more likely to look like the 2016 version of himself at this tournament than his 2017 version.
3. TIGER RETURNS
Dustin Johnson may be the odds-on favorite to be kissing the tournament trophy while standing around a cloud of reporters, but the man who the most eyes will be on is undoubtedly Tiger Woods.
The Genesis Open represents stop No. 2 on the “Tiger Comeback Tour” after he missed nearly all of 2017 while recovering from a series of back surgeries.
Stop No. 1 was three weeks ago at Torrey Pines, a move that made sense since Tiger has been so fantastically successful at that course, having won the Farmers Insurance Open there seven times, and the U.S. Open once. His history at Riviera is… well, this one was a more confusing add to his early schedule.
That’s not to say he has been bad at Riviera; he has not been consistently poor at any venue, but the Los Angeles area course is surprisingly not the site of any of Tiger’s 79 PGA Tour victories.
This will also be his first appearance in 12 years, dating back to 2006, when he withdrew after a 68-74 (+1) start due to an illness.
The last time Tiger played Riviera into the weekend was in 2004, when a final-round 64 vaulted him to a T7 finish. His best finish at this event was in 1999, when he scored in red numbers all four rounds, but still finished runner-up to Ernie Els. It was also the site of his first PGA Tour event, when he missed the cut as a 16-year-old amateur in 1992.
Tiger’s performance three weeks ago at the Farmers Insurance Open was mostly encouraging. He could not drive the ball. At all. He hit three fairways or fewer in three of four rounds, but despite all the trouble he was giving himself off the tees, he still managed to finish a very respectable T23.
Even better, he showed no signs of pain or physical discomfort, which is a huge victory in itself.
At 42, and having to make so many changes to his swing just to stay healthy, nobody is quite sure how Tiger will fare, but what cannot be argued is that he is closer to being “back” than he has at any time in the past 2-plus years.
4. FURYK’S DEBUT
A list of the top 20 golfers of the past 20 years would undoubtedly include the name of Jim Furyk, a man with 17 PGA Tour victories, including a major championship; a PGA Tour Player of the Year award; a FedExCup Championship; and the only player in the Tour’s 100-plus year history with two sub-60 rounds (58 and 59).
That name also, however, has been on very few leaderboards over the past two seasons. A wrist injury limited him to just 14 starts in 2016, a winless season where he accumulated just three top 10s, and had his lowest earnings ($1.5 million) since 2011.
He was expected to rebound in 2017, but was even worse, as he had just one top 10 in 18 events, earned just $550K, and fell well short of the FedExCup Playoffs (157th). A T6 at the RSM Classic in late November of 2016 was the last time he has even posted a top 20.
Furyk’s age is likely a factor, although at 47, he is just one month older than Phil Mickelson, one of his biggest rivals, who is coming off back-to-back top 5 finishes. A fiery competitor, it is very unlikely that Furyk thinks he is done. Named the 2018 Ryder Cup Captain, he does not want that to be the only thing his season is known for.
This week at Riviera, Furyk will be making his season debut. The extended time off gave him time to heal from late season shoulder problems, and he finally believes he is ready to tee it up again, at a tournament he has played many times. His best finish at the Genesis Open is a tie for third in 2007, and in his most recent event appearance, he posted a T23 in 2014.
5. FIVE MARQUEE EURO TOUR STARS
One of the biggest storylines going into last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was the 2018 U.S. debut of European standout Rory McIlroy.
A nagging rib injury plagued his 2017 season, but after some fantastic recent finishes on the European Tour, Rory was considered among those to beat at Pebble Beach. At least for one week, that did not happen, as the four-time major champion missed the cut by two strokes.
Rory is in the field this week again this week, but he will have to share the spotlight with the five marquee European Tour regulars who are making Riviera their first PGA stop of 2018.
At this time last year, the 27-year-old Englishman Fleetwood was not well-known to casual golf fans in the states, as all his past success had come in Europe.
That changed at the U.S. Open, where Fleetwood played himself into the final Sunday pairing and finished solo-4th. That was his best 2017 finish in the U.S. (although not his best in North America- that was a solo-2nd place finish at the WGC-Mexico Championship), but he was again incredible in Europe, where he won twice, and won the year-long Race to Dubai title.
He has started the new European Tour season where he left off, with two recent top-10 finishes sandwiching an impressive victory at last month’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The 26-year-old Belgian bomber did not need much time to get acclimated to Riviera, finishing T2 in his debut last year.
Pieters has three career victories in Europe, and has a penchant for the big stage. His 2017 season ended winless in both Europe and the U.S., but he did have some other great finishes on the PGA Tour, most notably a T4 at The Masters, a T5 at the WGC-Mexico Championship, and a solo-fourth at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
The most promising golf prospect ever from China, the 22-year old Li has already won twice in Europe, including just three weeks ago when he calmly outdueled Rory McIlroy on Sunday for a victory at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
His first victory came two years earlier when he triumphed at his home country event, the Volvo China Open.
Among PGA fans, Li is better known for his solo-third place finish at last year’s Open Championship, where he shocked the Sunday field with a 7-under 63, a round which would have tied the major championship record had it come just two days earlier.
The former World No. 1 from Germany is not quite in the form he was when he won the 2010 PGA Championship, or when he absolutely obliterated the field at the 2014 U.S. Open, but with his talent and experience, he is a threat to re-emerge at any time.
That U.S. Open triumph was his last on either the PGA Tour or in Europe, and in those four years, he has tumbled down to No. 78 in the world rankings. Like Fleetwood and Li, this will be the 33-year-old Kaymer’s Genesis Open debut.
The 2011 Masters Champion has not been in contention in the U.S. as often as many thought he would since that breakthrough major victory, but he did impress again at Augusta last year, posting a solo-third, three strokes out of the Garcia-Rose playoff.
Schwartzel made the cut at 15 of 18 2017 PGA events with a high finish of T2 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in June.
Another first timer in the Genesis Open field, the 33-year-old South African played all three events of the PGA Tour’s asian swing in October, but failed to finish better than T28 in any of them.