LOS ANGELES – The PGA Tour is at Riviera Country Club this week for the Northern Trust Open. Here are five things you need to know before the first tee shot is struck:
1. Watch for a bomber to win this week. It’s gray, wet and drizzly at Riviera, and a course that already plays long for some guys will play much longer. (The course measures 7,325 yards and is a par 71.) Eight of the top 12 players in driving distance will be teeing it up in L.A. this week, including Nos. 1-3 Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and J.B. Holmes. Johnson is feeling particularly confident after a good tuneup session with Butch Harmon on Tuesday. Some medium-length hitters don’t even put Northern Trust on the schedule anymore, and those that are here … well, better luck next year.
2. Will Lefty have the right stuff? Phil Mickelson has 38 PGA Tour victories, and this week at Riviera he will be looking for his 18th West Coast victory. With victories in Hawaii, Palm Springs, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson and Los Angeles (he won the Northern Trust in 2008-09), the left-hander has been the most prolific golfer west of the Rockies since Johnny Miller. Since ’91, Mickelson has won an event on the West Coast in 14 of 20 seasons, and never has gone two consecutive years without winning. (He was winless on the coast in 2010, his lone Tour victory coming at the Masters.) Mickelson is teeing it up for the fourth consecutive tournament, and he’s also penciled in for next week’s WGC Match Play, too. OK, so it’s tough to be the People’s Choice if you’re not out there among the people, but kudos to the big left-hander. (Heck, Tiger Woods hardly ever plays two straight, let alone five.)
3. Keep an eye on the rising sons. Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa will make his 2011 PGA Tour debut at the Northern Trust, where he has played in each of the past two seasons. Ishikawa, ranked 35th in the world, missed the cut as a 17-year-old in ’09 and tied for 32nd a year ago at Riviera. He is playing on a commissioner’s exemption, as is fellow competitor and countryman Yuta Ikeda, who is ranked 40th in the world and is playing the Northern Trust for the first time. The two will be together in a 8:14 a.m. pairing Thursday alongside Ryuji Imada, who has lived most of his life in Florida but was born in Japan. It is believed to be the first time three Japanese-born players have played together in a PGA Tour event.
4. Welcome to America, Louie, Louie. Making his 2011 U.S. debut is 2010 Open Championship winner Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who admitted on Tuesday he still “is on Qatar time.” Oosthuizen has taken up PGA Tour membership this season, and will base himself from now through the Masters at Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where his management group, ISM, has set up camp. Outside of majors and WGC events, Oosthuizen has made only two career “regular” starts on U.S. soil, missing the cut at Houston in 2008 and tying for 64th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2009. Two South Africans have won previously at Riviera – Ernie Els (1999) and Rory Sabbatini (2006). The last player to win at Riviera in his first appearance? Adam Scott, in 2005.
5. Will folks put down their tofu and sablefish long enough to watch the golf? Much was made of how thin the crowds were a year ago. Critics blamed PGA Tour Championship Management – which took over operations of the Northern Trust Open – criticizing high ticket prices and poor promotional effort. Seemed harsh, given that we’re talking about a massive city that can’t even support an NFL team, for goodness sakes, but let’s see how things play out this time around. Tickets were slashed from $50 to $30, and MasterCard came aboard to support a two-for-one deal. So sales have been brisk. However, there’s at least a 30 percent chance of rain Thursday-Friday, and Saturday chances grow to 70 percent. Mother Nature can be a fickle dame.
– Jim McCabe contributed