One would be hard-pressed to find a golf course anywhere that is more aesthetically appealing than Pebble Beach, a famous golf haven basking in the pulchritude of the California coastline. A five-hour drive south (five-and-a-half if you can’t resist the ultra-scenic California State Route 1), however, is something very close, if not comparable to Pebble.
Riviera Country Club, located in Pacific Palisades in the Los Angeles metro area, will provide a worthy challenge to a great field in this week’s PGA Tour event, the Genesis Open.
Tournament host Tiger Woods generated tremendous buzz when he announced that he was adding this tournament to his traditionally abbreviated schedule, a tournament he, surprisingly, has never won. Unfortunately, his increasingly disloyal back got the best of him again, and he withdrew on the advice of his doctors.
Even without the 14-time major winner in the field, the Genesis Open boasts the best field we have seen so far in 2017. It is a tournament that has not been decided by more than two strokes in nearly 20 years, and all signs point to another close, competitive fight this year.
Long known as the Los Angeles Open and more recently the Northern Trust Open, the Genesis Open has been held at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades (CA) for most of its history. The inaugural event occurred in 1926 in Los Angeles and was won by American Harry Cooper.
Notable tournament winners include Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, and Phil Mickelson. The tournament wins record is held by two largely forgotten, great players: Macdonald Smith and Lloyd Mangrum, who have four wins apiece.
The Genesis Open has been the site of some historically significant events. In 1938, legendary female athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias became the first woman to play a men’s professional golf event. Zaharias, who had only taken up golf three years earlier after spending years as a track and field superstar, shot 81-84 over the first two rounds and missed the cut.
Genesis was also the site of Tiger Woods’ first PGA tournament, playing the 1992 event as an amateur at just 17 years old. Tiger shot 72-75 (+5) and missed the cut.
The host site, Riviera Country Club, has hosted three major championships, most recently the 1995 PGA Championship, won by Steve Elkington in a playoff over Colin Montgomerie.
Name: Riviera Country Club
Where: Pacific Palisades, California
Distance: 7322 yards
Architect: George C. Thomas
Winning Share: $1,260,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
The defending champion of the Genesis Open is Bubba Watson. The 54-hole leader, Watson faced a tight battle on Sunday, most notably by Jason Kokrak and Adam Scott.
Watson broke a three-way tie with a birdie on the par 5 17th, which led to a final round 68. He was -15 for the tournament, one better than Kokrak and Scott, and two better than Dustin Johnson.
Other Recent Champions
2015: James Hahn
2014: Bubba Watson
2013: John Merrick
2012: Bill Haas
2011: Aaron Baddeley
Lowest Final Score: The lowest final score at the Genesis Open was the 264(-20) shot by Lanny Wadkins in his 1985 seven-stroke triumph.
Low Round: 61 (Ted Tryba)
Round 1: 2-6:00 PM Golf Channel
Round 2: 2-6:00 PM Golf Channel
Round 3: 1-2:30 PM Golf Channel; 3-6:00 PM CBS
Round 4: 1-2:30 PM Golf Channel; 3-6:00 PM CBS
1. Big Names Face Off in LA
Los Angeles seems to be home to as many big names as any city in the country. At least for this week, that number will be even higher. Despite Tiger’s unfortunate withdraw, the Genesis Open field is strong, especially for an early-season non-major or WGC event.
Tiger may be wandering outside the ropes, but the tournament has star power. Here are a few of those who will get extra attention from the crowd:
Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Thomas
We lumped Matsuyama and Thomas because they have been the unquestioned MVPs of the early season. Thomas is already at 3 wins, and Hideki is at 2.
Only two players (Dustin Johnson and Jason Day) reached three wins for the entire 2015-16 season, and nobody reached four. As hot as Hideki and Justin have been, we could see someone hit four wins by mid-February (!).
The FedEx Cup standings (as of the Waste Management Phoenix Open) well illustrate how much how this season has been dominated by these two:
- Hideki Matsuyama: 1697 points
- Justin Thomas: 1614 points
- Jordan Spieth: 910 points
Early on, Matsuyama was the hotter of the two, winning the season’s first WGC event, the HSBC Champions, he also won the unofficial Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, and several other international tournaments.
After his runner-up (to Thomas) at the year-opening SBS Tournament of Champions, Matsuyama cooled off some, but is back on a tear after his successful defense at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Thomas won the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and then took first at the first two tournaments of 2017, both occurring in Hawaii. He took the second half of January off, and was a surprise missed cut when he came back for the Waste Management Phoenix Open. How he responds at Riviera could tell us a lot about his mental state.
World #1 Jason Day is in the field, no longer trying to shake off the rust from the extended break he took after the Tour Championship, which he withdrew from in the second round with back trouble.
The 29-year-old Australian has not played in this tournament since 2012, when he was +9 for the week and finished T62. That poor result dropped him from 7th to 10th in the world rankings, but at least for now, he is well-established in that #1 spot, as the only man close to him, Rory McIlroy, is currently sidelined with a fractured rib.
For the first time in four weeks, Mickelson was set to only be the second-most popular player in the field, but now with Tiger not playing, Phil goes back to being the fan favorite.
Mickelson is a two-time winner at the Genesis Open, going back to back in 2008 and 2009. He was also runner-up in 2007 and 2012. This will be his first appearance since finishing T21 in 2013.
Last year’s co-runner up, Scott is making the Genesis his 2017 debut. While Scott was not quite able to overtake Bubba in 2016, the strong showing propelled him to wins in his next two events, the Honda Classic and the WGC-Cadillac.
Scott was quiet from April to August, but finished his 2015-16 season with three fourth place finishes and a T8 in his last four events, the four events that make up the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He also went the entire season without missing a cut. Scott won the 2005 edition of this tournament, but since it was called off after 36 holes due to bad weather, it does not count as an official win. Scott may be motivated to add a Riviera win that is a little less unofficial.
It was a tale of two rounds at the 2016 Genesis for Jordan Spieth, who had a nightmare round one, carding eight bogeys and one double for an eight-over 79. He rebounded well on Friday with a three-under 68, but by then the damage had been done and Spieth missed the cut by five strokes.
Fortunately for Spieth, the 79 appears to be an anomaly as he finished T4 and T12 the previous two years. He has been in impressive early-season form, highlighted by a win at Pebble Beach last week, and is definitely among the top 2-3 favorites here.
2. What Has Happened to the Defending Champion?
Bubba Watson has not played badly since he won the 2016 Genesis Open, but he has not quite been playing at the level we have come to expect from the two-time major winner either. He followed the victory up with a solo-second place at the WGC-Cadillac Championship where he passed the redoubtable Rory McIlroy on Sunday, but could not quite catch Adam Scott.
Since then, Bubba has not contended anywhere. His major season especially was a complete dud as his best major result was a T37 at The Masters where he was +9 for the week and had three rounds of 75 or worse. He reached #4 in the world after his triumph at Riviera, two spots away from tying his career best ranking, but has slowly faded since to his current spot at a still strong #13.
A year ago, he looked like a stone-cold lock to make the Ryder Cup squad. Forward to October: Bubba was at Hazeltine as an assistant captain after falling out of the top 8 in points (automatic qualifying) and being passed over for one of Davis Love III’s captains picks.
All that being said, there were some positives as well. He was still among the best at making it to the weekend, missing just one cut (the Deutsche Bank Championship), and he put together a nice weekend at The Olympics to finish T8, and he ended the season well finishing in the top 20 in three of the four FedEx Cup Playoff events.
If the 38-year-old is serious about getting his game back to his 2011-2015 levels, Riviera is the place to watch for it. In addition to winning the 2016 Genesis title, Bubba also won in 2014 when an incredible 64-64 weekend propelled him to the top of the final leaderboard, two strokes ahead of Dustin Johnson. He was also highly competitive in other editions of the tournament, finishing T14 in 2015 and T13 in 2012. Bubba knows this course.
3. So Close: Dustin Johnson’s History at Riviera
Dustin Johnson has won often on Tour; 12 times to be exact, and he has at least one win in each of the past nine seasons, an incredible streak from the 2016 PGA Tour Player of the Year. One mountain he has yet to conquer, however, is the Genesis Open. Here are his results from his last five attempts at Riviera:
2015: T2 (playoff loss)
DJ was also T3 in 2010 and T10 in 2009. His best opportunity for a victory may have been two years ago when he led late, until a bogey on the par-5 17th dropped him into a playoff that he would lose on the third hole to James Hahn, who was ranked #297 in the world at the time.
Being agonizingly close is not an unfamiliar thing for the man they call DJ. Until his breakthrough victory last season among intense controversy at the U.S. Open, his career was largely defined by all the close calls he had in majors without a victory.
Could he end a similar pattern of so-closes at Riviera this year? His confidence could not be higher coming off a three-victory season where he finally cleared the major hurdle.
Other Notables in the Field
Hahn was the surprise winner in 2015 when he came out victorious in a playoff with Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey. His title defense did not go well; he shot 71-76 and missed the cut. It was the second cut in a streak of eight in a row that ended with his second career victory.
In his other two appearances at Riviera, he had another a T29 and a T61. Hahn has a history of being streaky, but he can put it together at any time.
Lahiri, the 29-year-old pride of India, has had a quietly good start to the season, shooting double-digits under par in four of his first five events. This coming off a season, his first playing full-time in the U.S., where he made 16 of 21 cuts, although he did not really contend anywhere.
He finished T39 in 2016, his only appearance at Riviera. A potential sleeper candidate, given his current form, a win for Lahiri would be enormous for golf in India, a country with many people, but very few golf courses.
Those who didn’t already know about the 25-year-old Belgian Pieters sure did after The Olympics, which he was great in, and the Ryder Cup, which he was unbelievable in. A third-round 77 in Rio kept him off the podium, but for three days, Pieters was one of the top few players there.
At the Ryder Cup, he was easily the best player on the losing European side, and his four points (4-1-0 record) was the most for either side. The world #50 is a wildcard this week with it being his first appearance at the Genesis, but his upside may be as high as anyone in the field.
While Rose did win the Olympic Gold Medal in 2016, he was 0-for in PGA Tour events, the first time in seven years he exited the season without at least one win. His two top 10s to begin this season show that he is serious about getting back in the win column.
A T9 in 2011 is his best result in this event.
Fresh off a win at the Dubai Desert Classic, which propelled him back into the world top 10, Sergio is making his 2017 PGA debut at Riviera. While we are still waiting on Sergio’s major breakthrough, he has been very good in the states recently, only missing three cuts over the last four seasons, with a win and six runner-ups.
One of those missed cuts was at the Genesis last year, but in 2015, Sergio finished T4, just one stroke out of the Hahn-DJ-Casey playoff. Finishing 6th in Greens in Regulation percentage last season, Sergio showed that he is still one of the best iron players in golf.