PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Seventy degrees and sunny in Southern California? Who doesn’t want to be here? Certainly the 144 players who have gathered at beautiful Riviera, the famed Hogan’s Alley, are happy they showed. And why wouldn’t they be? Dr. Alister MacKenzie once inspected George Thomas Jr.’s mid-1920s masterpiece and said it was “as nearly perfect as man could make it.”
Here are 5 Things to look for at this week’s Northern Trust Open:
1. STAR POWER: OK, so world Nos. 1 and 2 (Rory McIlroy/Tiger Woods) aren’t here, but between those who have flown in and the golf course itself, the Riv should do just fine. The field features 18 of the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and 25 of the top 50, which constitutes the strongest field of the PGA Tour season to date. Three of last year’s four major winners are here (Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Ernie Els). Els, who won the Open Championship at Royal Lytham, has played three European Tour events thus far in 2013, but Northern Trust will mark his PGA Tour debut. Also making their first starts of the season: Luke Donald, Adam Scott and Graeme McDowell.
Els said he’s a little rusty, but Riviera is one of those venues that really gets a player’s juices going.
“It’s a great start, and it’s a place you have to play well to score well,” said Els, who won at Riviera in 1999. “It’s really one of the premier events on the Tour. I’m glad it’s got that status, because it’s such a classical golf course.”
2. DEJA VU: When last we left the Northern Trust Open a year ago, the final three players standing in one of the most exciting events of the year were Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley and Bill Haas. Mickelson and Bradley made dramatic putts on the 72nd hole to join Haas in a playoff, but it was Haas who prevailed, draining a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 10, the tournament’s second playoff hole. (“For it to go in,” Haas said Wednesday, “it’s something I’ll never forget.”)
This time around, the three won’t have to wait until late Sunday afternoon to bump into one another. They are paired together, going off that same 10th tee at 7:11 a.m. Haas and Bradley, incidentally, tied for fewest putts (103) last year, along with Cameron Tringale.
3. SHORT AND STOUT: Riviera is home to one of the greatest short par-4 holes on Tour – the drivable, 315-yard 10th. The green is narrow and well-bunkered, and those who do take a swipe at driving the green need to miss it left if they’re going to miss at all; those who short-side themselves right of the green face a pitch over a bunker that runs away from them to a firm, fast green. The hole has changed character quite a bit over the years, transforming from a real pushover to a true test. When the green was softer and more receptive, Fred Couples used to step to the tee and tell his caddie to write down a “3.” “That’s not being cocky,” Couples said. Now? “I would take a 4 and run to the next hole.”
4. 31 AND COUNTING: Speaking of Couples, he will set a record at Riviera on Thursday morning when he makes his 31st tournament start, surpassing Gene Littler. Couples, 52, has won two times at Riviera (1990 and ‘92) and owns a dozen other top-10s, including three runner-up performances. Asked his thoughts on so many starts at one venue, Couples said had somebody asked him during his rookie year in 1981 if he’d like to play Riviera several years, he’d have said “Yes.” But 31 starts? “I would laugh,” he said. Couples is playing on a sponsor exemption.
5. MATCH-PLAY DRAMA: The 64-man field for next week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship already is set. When Brandt Snedeker (ribs) withdrew on Tuesday, Fredrik Jacobson, who is in this week’s field at Northern Trust, entered the field. But it’s no sure thing that he’ll face top-seeded Rory McIlroy. In fact, the seedings for brackets will not be finalized until the Official World Golf Ranking is updated after Sunday’s finish at Riviera (likely about 8 p.m. EST, which shortens the window for those office golf pools). From that point, if one of the 64 players in the field happens to withdraw, the first alternate would be inserted into that player’s spot in the bracket. Currently, the first alternate is Austria’s Bernd Weisberger, ranked 67th in the world. The next “healthy” golfer after Weisberger (Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, ranked 68th, is injured) would be Anders Hansen of Denmark. One more possible alternate if the four Europeans ahead of him are not on site in Arizona? American Chris Kirk, No. 71.