Q&Gray: Can Tiger Woods solve Riviera puzzle? Will Phil Mickelson stay hot?

Will Gray
·6 min read

The stars are out this week in Hollywood, and it has nothing to do with the Walk of Fame. Here are four burning questions to consider as the West Coast Swing ends in style, with nine of the top 10 players in the world gathered at Riviera Country Club to contest the Genesis Invitational:

What does Tiger need to solve Riviera?

Woods’ relationship with this venue pre-dates his pro career, as it is the place he took his first swipes on the PGA Tour as a skinny 16-year-old amateur. But all those years haven’t added much wisdom when it comes to figuring out this week’s venue, where he has teed it up more times without winning than any other course on Tour.

Woods skipped this event from 2007 to '17, a sign of his reticence to return to a course that often gave him fits, and a third-round 65 last year is the only time he’s broken 70 in six rounds since coming back. But a T-15 finish proved to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things a year ago, and now he returns with skill and confidence in equal measure.

Still, there’s something about this place that just doesn’t quite fit his eye. Tuesday Woods pointed to his struggles reading the fickle poa annua greens, and his par-3 scoring average at Riviera is well above his norm. It’s also a place where he sometimes struggles to get rounds on track, as last year he played Nos. 2-7 in 8 over without recording a single birdie.

There are several courses on Tour where it seems Woods only needs to step to the first tee and wait for the trophy to fall into his arms. This simply isn’t one of them.

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Who is the real No. 1?

This week’s top billing belongs to Rory McIlroy, who has returned to the No. 1 world ranking for the first time since 2015. But it’s a close race at the top, and this week could go a long way toward determining who the true man to beat will be this year.

McIlroy has won four times since his T-4 finish at Riviera a year ago, good enough to end Brooks Koepka’s nine-month run without even hitting a shot last week. The Ulsterman will surely be motivated to extend his latest reign for at least another week, and it’ll be interesting to see how Koepka responds to a little extra motivation – even if he’s downplaying its importance.

Brooks Koepka focused more on form than No. 1 ranking at Riviera

But this is hardly a two-man race. Jon Rahm can ascend to No. 1 for the first time in his career with a win, having finished outside the top 15 just once since June. While Justin Thomas can’t get there mathematically, a fourth win since August would cement his status as the hottest player in the game. 

All four deserve their current spot among the upper echelon. But this week it feels like the nod might go to Thomas – the man on the outside looking in for the actual No. 1 race, but a runner-up last year who also finished T-3 two weeks ago in Phoenix.


Who can capitalize on momentum?

Last week was a step in the right direction for a trio of former major champs, as Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day all notched much-needed results to stem downward spirals of varying degrees. Mickelson let the tournament get away on the final day, but his third-place showing was still his best on Tour in a year. Having confirmed he’ll skip next week’s event in Mexico even if he qualifies, Lefty has one more chance to turn bombs into birdies before taking a break, as he plays for the fifth time in as many weeks.

Spieth snuck into the Mexico field by the thinnest of margins, though it remains to be seen if he’ll make the trip south. But after showing signs of life despite a missed cut in Phoenix, last week’s top-10 in Monterey was finally a chance for Spieth to glean a concrete result from the confident coach-speak. A similar performance, complete with dazzling ball-striking stats, will truly be cause for optimism.

How much does Mickelson have left in tank?

Then there’s Day, who had tumbled all the way to 46th in the world before a fourth-place finish at Pebble. Given his poor history at Riviera, this could be something of a free roll for the Aussie before he heads east to layouts that more suit his style.


Which bomber will thrive in Hogan’s Alley?

Built into the cozy confines of an L.A. canyon, Riviera isn’t the longest course players will face this year on Tour. Look no further than the iconic par-4 10th, a test of strategy but not strength, to understand the demands of Riv. In theory, this is a place where distance takes a backseat to ball-striking.

But in recent years, some of the longest hitters on Tour have cleaned up at Hogan’s Alley. Bubba Watson won three times in a five-year stretch from 2014-18, while that run was interrupted by a Dustin Johnson triumph in 2017. Last year, it was bomber J.B. Holmes who rallied past Justin Thomas.

Bryson DeChambeau sees Happy Gilmore-like length in golf's future

Quite clearly, longer hitters have figured out a way to get a leg up on the field at Riviera. While the opening hole plays as the easiest par-5 all year on Tour, easily reachable for every player in the field, the other two par-5s on the card exceed 580 yards. The big hitters can also neutralize the brawny par-4s down the stretch at Riv, with holes like 12, 15 and 18 all tipping out over 475 yards with little margin for error.

So while the familiar faces are back this week, and numerology suggests Bubba might be due for another win in an even-numbered year, keep an eye on two other players who can launch it off the tee: current driving distance leader Cameron Champ, who won earlier this season and has three top-25s in four starts this year, and Bryson DeChambeau, who spent the off-season focused on adding length off the tee and appears to have found it in his most recent performances.