Quality Rises to Top at Northern Trust Open

Storied Riviera Has History of Producing Great Champions

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | With more than 36 holes left to play before crowning a champion at the Northern Trust Open, you can already winnow the list of favorites down by studying their résumés.

Non-winners on the PGA Tour can be eliminated first: Sorry, Sang Moon Bae and John Merrick.

Winners lacking a major or a victory at a big event like the Players, TOUR Championship or WGC series, or not occupying a spot near the top of the Official World Golf Rankings also miss the cut. That means you, John Mallinger.

What you're left with is a sterling list of contenders ready to join the distinguished roll of past champions at a classic course made famous by Ben Hogan. Hogan won four times at Riviera Country Club in the 1940s, including three wins in an 18-month span that included the 1948 U.S. Open, inspiring his contemporary Jimmy Demaret to dub the place "Hogan's Alley."

Everything about the Riviera drips classic Hollywood, from the sprawling Spanish Revival clubhouse to the Santa Monica Canyon estates perched above the fairways of the George Thomas design.

The course, which opened in 1927, features one of the most recognizable finishing holes on the PGA Tour -- the 475-yard 18th with its towering eucalyptus trees and natural amphitheater -- as well as one of the most devilish par-4s -- the drivable 315-yard 10th hole that sports a long, narrow green guarded by deep bunkers and rough.

True to script, the tournament (known at various times as the Los Angeles Open, Nissan Open and now Northern Trust Open) has produced an A-list of champions that includes legends Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Lanny Wadkins and Nick Faldo.

Local crowd favorite Fred Couples is a two-time winner and tournament mainstay as is Phil Mickelson, the back-to-back winner in 2008 and 2009 who narrowly missed his third title last year, losing in a three-way playoff to Bill Haas. Past Masters winner Mike Weir is another two-time champion here.

Fast forward to Friday (Feb. 15) afternoon and the current leaderboard sports similar star quality. Among the contenders heading into the weekend are former world No. 1 Luke Donald, Masters winner Charl Schwartzel, 2012 Players champion Matt Kuchar, and defending U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson.

Why does Riviera bring out the best in the PGA Tour's elite? The old-school design has something to do with it. Add in wiry Kikuyu grass that can swallow up errant shots and bumpy poa annua greens and you get the need for precision that tends to identify the game's blue chippers.

"It's one of the more classic courses we play,'' Donald told SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio after a second-round 5-under-par 66 left him two shots off the lead. "The greens are very small and very undulating. You don't just stand there and hit shots straight at the pins, you have to leave shots in the right spots … It's a course where you have to have some patience."

Reigning Open Championship titleholder Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, 2005 Northern Trust champion Adam Scott and Lee Westwood are also within striking distance.

"I like the course, that's quite important,'' said Garcia, who followed up a final-round 64 in last year's tournament here with an opening-round 65 Thursday before struggling to a 73 on Friday. He sits at 4-under-par heading into the weekend. "It's a great test to start the year for me, and it's not an easy golf course so those are the kinds of courses I enjoy playing."

And playing side-by-side with the same competitors you'll typically see at a major can't help but raise the quality of the game's best.

"To beat guys of that caliber is amazing, something I will never forget,'' said Bill Haas, the 2011 FedEx Cup winner after edging four-time major winner Mickelson and 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley in last year's playoff.

One glaring omission from the winner's list is Southern California native Tiger Woods. Woods played in his first PGA Tour event here as a 16-year-old amateur in 1992. He has a handful of top 10 finishes at Riviera, including a second in 1999, but hasn't been back since withdrawing from the event in 2006.

Given the star power on the current leaderboard, I don't think he will be missed.

Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for the Greensboro News & Record, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News and New York Post. A past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association, he most recently covered the Northern Trust Open for FoxSports.com.

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