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The West Coast Swing comes to an end, putting the lid on this week at Riviera Country Club.
Every year this is one of those "checkpoint" events that attract the biggest names as they ramp up their schedule ahead of the major-championship season. It certainly helps the recruiting process to have Tiger Woods and his foundation attached to the tournament. Woods won't be playing this week, as he recovers from injury, but his foundation hosts the tournament and helped the event receive elevated status starting last year.
As a result of that elevated status, the event is an invite-only affair, as the name suggests. It also rewards 550 FedExCup Points to the winner, instead of the traditional 500 for most regular TOUR stops. Only 120 golfers will peg it this week at The Riv. That helps your chances of getting through the cutline which is top 65 and ties, after 36 holes, as usual.
Riviera Country Club is the host venue this week. Situated in Pacific Palisades, California.
This classical George Thomas design was first used at the LA Open back in 1929 and it assumed the host tag of this event since 1973, with a few exceptions along the way (Rancho Municipal in 1983 and Vanecia in 1998).
Looking at the scorecard, we see a par 71 that stretches out to 7,322 yards from the tips. It's quite beefy when you look at the hole-by-hole yardages and see that six of the par 4s play over 455 yards. The par-3 fourth is also 236 yards. Combine those and you'll see plenty of mid-to-long irons in service this week.
With some lengthy holes and lack of punishing rough, golfers will pull plenty of drivers this week. It's not a bomb-and-gouge layout because the approach shots are still tough, but it certainly pays to have some distance in your corner this week. Just look at the list of recent winners (Adam Scott, J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson, and Dustin Johnson). All of them hold their own in the driving distance department.
There is no water in play, which is another reason you'll see more drivers than a typical week on TOUR. The defense of the course is well-positioned bunkers and tricky pin positions with slopes on the greens that make your ideal landing areas very small.
For turf this week you'll hear plenty about it. From tee-to-green you'll see kikuyugrass which is familiar to many Aussies, Koreans, and South Africans. Once they reach the greens, golfers will have to deal with tricky, poa annua putting surfaces. They usually ramp them up past 12 feet on the stimp meter which is speedy when you consider the severity of the slopes on these classical greens.
When looking at the scoring environment, you won't see a lot of birdies this week from the field. Yet, eagles do fly off the shelf at a higher clip than most TOUR stops. In fact, that might be a key element of why some succeed here. When you look at the list of correlated venues below, all of them except for Innisbrook sit right next to each other when it comes to the number of eagles they allow. On the flip side, you don't see many big numbers either (other than perhaps some hiccups at the short, par-4 10th). As a result, it becomes a course where you need to settle for pars for most of the day then let the birdie runs or eagles sporadically fill up the score sheet.
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Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Dustin Johnson: "sometimes even with a wedge, you just can’t attack flags. That’s the hard part about being here, especially when the greens are firm. You’ve got to play away from a lot of flags and try to use the slopes to get it close. "
Tiger Woods: "There’s no faking it around this golf course, especially if the greens are up to speed like they are right now. It puts such a premium on putting the golf ball in play and hitting the ball high. You’ve got to hit the ball high into any of these greens and really control your spin and put the ball in the right spots because getting up and down here, as we’ve all seen, kikuyu grass is not easy to do."
Graeme McDowell: "I love the way this golf course sets up. There’s not a lot of rough, but because of how soft the fringes are and how firm the greens are, it makes fairways a premium because you can’t attack the greens from the rough. So I love the setup. It’s definitely a patience game, and when you get out of position you’ve got to be really smart about getting your ball back in the right side of the hole. "
Adam Scott: "I think it’s no secret the least putts are made here on Tour all year. The greens are quite severe. It’s an old traditional style golf course with severe greens, and then you get them at speeds 12 and a half this morning, last year they were very, very quick and if they’re just — poa seems like if it’s just not the right consistency of water versus firmness and everything, they get very bumpy and this is where we start struggling."
Tough approach shots and brutal greens. The greens are heavily undulating and also tricky poa annua. Then they ramp them up to 12.5+ feet on the stimp.
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
Copperhead at Innisbrook Resort
The theme appears to be strong field events, lots of drivers or long-iron approaches, and fast greens.
Thursday: Sunny with a high of 67 degrees. Winds at 5 to 8 MPH.
Friday: Sunny with a high of 66 degrees. Winds around 5 MPH.
Golfers will be pleased to see the temps warm up a bit compared to last week at Pebble where sweaters and hoodies were the attire of choice all week.
Golfers to Watch
He took home the hardware at the Saudi International then opted for rest instead of jet lag, backing out of last week's AT&T Pro-Am. He's won four times since the restart last season and also added a trio of runner-up finishes over the stretch. It's easy to see why he's the betting favorite this week. Johnson is also a past champ at The Riv (2017), posting top 10s in 9-fo-13 appearances here.
He continues to trend with back-to-back top 5s. Will his game hold up for another week, this time against a very strong field? Historically, this is a course that has yielded just three top 20s in eight tries for Spieth so it hasn't been the most friendly to him. He knows why, he just needs to execute the game plan, as he laid out in 2018, "The way that I’ve been playing this golf course, I’ll either finish I think third at best and anywhere from third to 25th because I’m just, I’m not quite patient enough to play this golf course. I really need to approach it a lot like I approach Augusta. It has a lot of similarities in the way you have to attack it, which center of the green is fantastic."
Similar to Spieth we have to ask whether or not Koepka is "back" or whether his win in Phoenix will look like a one-off surge when we look back at the end of the season? It's no secret that BK cut ties with his longtime swing coach, Claude Harmon, in the fall. Koepka hit fewer fairways per round, compared to the field, in each of his next three starts. He missed the cut in all three. Then he finished 1st in GIR percentage in Phoenix, what a turnaround. There is no faking that kind of ball-striking, over a four-day period. Good news for Koepka fans moving forward. Here at The Riv, he is just 1-for-2 with a missed cut (2017) and T43 (2020) on his resume.
He's the defending champ this week and was also the 36-hole leader during the 2005 edition which was shortened due to weather. Consider him a 1.5-time winner of this event. It's not just those two events that stand out on his course resume, either. Scott has landed a top 20 in 8-of-11 official starts here. The Scott will be a popular play this week for gamers following the scent of course history.
He arrived with just one top 10 in 13 Genesis appearances before last year. Then he went on to nearly post a wire-to-wire win. He had the lead or co-lead after each of the first three rounds then stalled out on Sunday to settle for a share of second place. Kuchar arrives without any form to speak of this year but his example was more to point out that course history isn't the end-all, be-all when it comes to picking golfers for a fantasy squad. It also goes to show that you don't need to overpower this course because that is certainly not the style of golf that Kuchar plays.
It's hard to leave a rising star like Morikawa off my top-20 list but when you consider the trends of his game (very poor to end 2020) and the strength of this week's field (very strong), some big names have to fall short of that top-20 mark. That being said, he finished T26 here last year in his debut and he's a Cali kid. He's opened 2021 with a T7 at the Tourney of Champs and a T7 at the Sony Open before flying overseas for a T68 on the European Tour.
The lack of wins continues to be a talking point for Finau. One of his close calls came here at Riviera CC during the 2018 edition when he posted a runner-up finish. "I feel like I’m definitely a shotmaker, very creative, very instinctive when I play and very visual. So this course allows you to do that. There’s no one way you’ve got to hit it on this golf course, you can do it a lot of different ways. I don’t think it favors a guy who hits a fade or draw, you can do it — you can kind of do it all on this golf course. It’s one of the best that we play." If you keep knocking on the door, someone has to open it eventually, right?
Ranking the Field
1. Dustin Johnson
2. Jon Rahm
3. Justin Thomas
4. Xander Schauffele
5. Rory McIlroy
6. Patrick Cantlay
7. Tony Finau
8. Bryson DeChambeau
9. Adam Scott
10. Russell Henley
11. Viktor Hovland
12. Joaquin Niemann
13. Will Zalatoris
14. Hideki Matsuyama
15. Daniel Berger
16. Bubba Watson
17. Brooks Koepka
18. Jason Kokrak
19. Cameron Smith
20. Carlos Ortiz