The COVID-19 pandemic has largely obliterated the sports world in the past year, but all things considered, the PGA Tour has held up remarkably well, holding one frantically-rescheduled event after another since last June. Fans are still sparse, which takes a bit from the experience, but the standard of play has been high, as well as the drama.
This week, the action heads to the Los Angeles area for the 94th edition of the Genesis Invitational, which has been held at Riviera Country Club in all but two editions since 1973 (1983, 1998). The field is superb for the Tiger Woods-hosted event, which sees eight of the world’s top 10 players participating.
There are myriad storylines impacting this year’s edition. Here are the five we find most intriguing:
1. Adam Scott Defends
In what ended up being the last of seven victories in his 30s, 14-time Tour winner Adam Scott prevailed at last year’s Genesis Invitational. The highly-accomplished Aussie was tied for the 54-hole lead with Matt Kuchar and Rory McIlroy, and got off to a nice start with birdies on Nos. 1 and 3, but appeared to be falling apart with a bogey on 4, and a double on 5, the latter of which happened at the same time McIlroy was hacking his way to a triple bogey.
However, Scott kept his cool and stayed ahead for the entire back nine, and after a birdie on the 17th, he arrived at the final tee box with a two-stroke lead. A par clinched the two-stroke advantage over Kuchar, Sung Kang, and Scott Brown. It was his first PGA Tour victory since going back-to-back at the 2016 Honda Classic and WGC-Cadillac Championship.
We would not hear much from Scott the rest of the season. He played just two events before the COVID-19 layoff, a T26 and a missed cut, and was one of the last among the big names to return to action following those golfless three months. He played the PGA Championship (T22), and made it through two of the three rounds of the FedExCup playoffs before being eliminated.
The man who holds many international Presidents Cup records has made the cut in all six 2021 season events he has entered, but has been quiet, with just a single top 10, although that did come in his most recent start, the Farmers Insurance Open. In that event, he got into the early leader mix with a 67-69 start, but had an underwhelming weekend to the tune of a 72 and 73.
Currently 22nd in the world rankings, Scott is not arriving at Riviera in his best form, but he has a phenomenal history of success on the historic course. In addition to his win a year ago, he won the “unofficial” 2005 event, which was rained out after 36 holes, and he took runner-up honors in 2006 and 2016. With underrated distance and possibly the Tour’s most enviable swing, the course sets up nicely to make his first big post-40 run.
2. Dustin Johnson Back In Action
Over the past two seasons especially, the No. 1 spot in the world rankings has proven volatile, changing hands many times. However, after the best stretch of his career to finish off the 2020 calendar year and season, the rankings have become Dustin Johnson… and then everyone else.
After slumping, by his lofty standards anyway, prior to the COVID-19 layoff, DJ absolutely exploded when play resumed in June. A win at Travelers Championship, made it 13 straight seasons with at least one victory for the 36-year-old playing his 13th season on Tour. He went on to finish the 2020 season with four straight top 2 finishes: victories at The Northern Trust and The Tour Championship, and runner-ups at the PGA Championship at the BMW Championship.
That tear allowed him to win the FedExCup Championship and he was named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
And it was not over there for Johnson. He opened the 2021 season with a T6 and a T2 before his triumph at The Masters, a five stroke romp, for his first green jacket and second career major championship victory.
There is potentially a rust factor for DJ this week at Riviera. He has played just once since The Masters, notching a T11 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at the beginning of January. He was originally in the field for last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, an event he has won twice with two other runner-ups, but withdrew before the tournament started. The reason for that WD was reported to be jet lag, as DJ had played (and won!) the European Tour’s Saudi International, the week prior.
Johnson won the 2017 edition by five strokes over Scott Brown and Thomas Pieters, and finished runner-up in 2014 and 2015, the latter being a playoff loss at the hands of James Hahn. A win this week would give him 25 career Tour victories, moving him to 23rd on the all-time list. Among active players, only Tiger Woods (82) and Phil Mickelson (44), neither of whom are in this week’s field, have more.
3. Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption
The PGA Tour has become increasingly diversified over the past few decades, but still lags behind most of the major professional sports leagues. In an effort to help change that, the Genesis Invitational gives one exemption to someone who represents advancement in diversity.
Started in 2009, notable players receiving the exemption have included Harold Varner III, J.J. Spaun, and Cameron Champ. The exemption was named after Hall of Famer Charlie Sifford, an African American who won the 1969 edition of the event in a playoff over two-time Tour winner Harold Henning.
This year’s exemption is going to Willie Mack III, a Michigander who had a successful collegiate career at Bethune-Cookman. This will be his second career PGA Tour start, as he also played last month’s Farmers Insurance Open as a COVID-19 replacement for a fellow mini-tour friend and competitor.
4. Bubba Watson: Ultimate Horse For The Course
Despite the Genesis Invitational having roots dating all the way back to 1926, only one player in the 120-man field has (officially) won the event multiple times: 42-year-old lefty Bubba Watson.
Bubba actually has three wins at Riviera, taking the 2014, 2016, and 2018 events. The even-year pattern ended with a surprising missed cut a year ago.
Possibly more than anyone else on Tour, the two-time Masters champion has his courses that fit his eye, and have frequently seen him in contention. Riviera is definitely one of those. His victory in the 2018 edition was his 10th PGA Tour triumph, and he has won two events since, but those were both in that 2018 season, meaning Watson is now in a three-season winless drought.
Bubba is far from washed up, and even ranks third this season in strokes gained: tee-to-green, but after a five-year stretch from 2014-2018 where he had 8 wins among 32 top 10s, he had just three top 10s each of the past two seasons. His best results in six 2021 starts have been a T4 at Octobers The CJ CUP @ Shadow Creek, followed by a T7 the following week at the ZOZO Championship @ Sherwood.
In his most recent start, he finished T22 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, making a big Sunday move with a final-round 65. He is hoping to bring the confidence from that finish to a venue where he has proven himself dominant.
5. Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth: Are They Back?
Fans have raved about the recent strong play of Tour heavyweights Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth, two previously-struggling players who have seven majors between them. But is it really safe to say they’re “back”, and to what degree are they there? Both are in the field at Riviera this week.
Koepka had shown himself to be the epitome of a big game hunter with his recent stellar record in major championships, which included back-to-back wins at the U.S. Open (2017, 2018) and the PGA Championship (2018, 2019). In addition, he has notched top-7 finishes at six other majors since the 2015 season.
However, a knee injury severely hindered his 2020 season. In 13 starts, he had just two top-10s and had to miss his attempt at a third straight PGA Championship. He was reportedly in “a dark place” during that time, and did not know if he would ever regain his dominant form.
Then Phoenix happened.
Koepka teed up two weeks ago at the Waste Management Phoenix Open coming off of three consecutive missed cuts, but opened with rounds of 68, 66, 66 to get within five strokes of the Sunday lead. While co-leaders Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele faltered, Brooks shot a 6-under 65, highlighted by birdies on 13, 14, and 15, and a hole-out eagle on the par-4 17th to win by one stroke over Schauffele and Kyoung-Hoon Lee. It was his eighth career Tour victory, and first since the 2019 season, where he won thrice.
He now comes to Riviera renewed, and looks to move back up the world rankings (currently 12th) at a place where he struggled to a T43 a year ago.
It is a little more complicated with Spieth. Few players in Tour history were more successful in their late teens/early 20s than the Texas product. He won the John Deere Classic in 2013 as a 19-year-old, and from 2013 to 2017, he would go on to win 11 events, including three majors. When he took the 2017 Open Championship, he was a PGA Championship away from becoming just the sixth player all-time to capture the career Grand Slam.
Unfortunately, his ascending career came to a halt. Imputed mostly to struggles in the mental game, Spieth has not won since that ‘17 Open Championship, falling from 1st in the world rankings all the way to 92nd after missing the cut at January’s Farmers Insurance Open.
However, the now 27-year-old may have found something this month, or at least 75% of something. Spieth took the 54-hole co-lead at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and then the solo 54-hole lead by two strokes at least week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
In the former, he shot a career low 10-under 61 in the third round. He failed to win either though, taking fourth in Phoenix after a Sunday 72 and a T3 after a 70 at Pebble. He was not horrendous in the later, but was merely average while Maverick McNealy and winner Daniel Berger exploded.
There remains the risk of scar tissue for Spieth, but he has seen every part of his game clicking at times the past two weeks, and simply being in contention again, something that rarely happened in the past two seasons, should be invaluable for his psyche. He comes to Riviera, where he finished T59 a year ago, as possibly the most intriguing player in the field.