Lavner: Riviera a perfect backdrop for NCAAs

View of the clubhouse from the 10th tee during the 2012 NCAA Championship at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Hello, paradise. The high temperature Monday at Riviera Country Club, site of this week’s NCAA Championship, was 72 degrees. The sky looked like blue construction paper. A comfortable wind blew off the Pacific. Might as well take a photograph, add a postage stamp in the top-right corner and sign it, “Wish you were here!”

This year’s national championship has gone so Hollywood, with team vans driving down Sunset Boulevard and players staying at the glamorous Loews Hotel near Santa Monica and everybody seemingly watching the first-place Dodgers at Chavez Ravine.

Now, however, those uniquely L.A. experiences are rendered mere footnotes. For the next six days, Riviera takes center stage at college golf’s biggest event.

“Why are majors played on these kind of courses?” Illinois coach Mike Small asked Monday during a practice round. “It’s the magnetism. The excitement. The fans. The tradition. It’s the entire atmosphere that elevates the event. You can’t help but embrace it.”

Another idea worth embracing: the hometown teams, the SoCal kids, have a significant advantage at this year’s NCAA Championship. OK, so USC and UCLA play here. A lot. Since May 19, the final day of NCAA regionals, the Trojans have played eight times at Riviera. They know the grasses, the breaks, the angles. And they also know that doesn’t mean anything if they don’t play well the next three days.

The other 28 teams in the field were forced to get creative. Some teams on Sunday played Los Angeles Country Club’s North course. Others played Bel-Air. A few played Sherwood. To acquire a few nuggets of local knowledge, Small has placed a few calls to Steve Stricker, a winner here in 2010. North Florida coach Scott Schroeder has Jim Furyk’s yardage book and the past two years’ worth of pin sheets. Alabama coach Jay Seawell taped coverage of the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open in February.

Of course, those coaches learned more during a five-hour practice round Monday than they could in any film session. There are some spots on the course that you just can’t miss. (Note: Missing right on the par-4 10th isn’t just a “tricky” up-and-down; it’s a near-death experience.) There are some stretches on the course, particularly on the back nine, where you just hope to make par. What can happen from this angle? Will a hole location be tucked on this shelf? Those kinds of questions were commonplace Monday. Cramming before the final exam.

The winning score at the 2012 Northern Trust Open, won in a playoff by Bill Haas, was 7 under. From 2008 to '11, respectively, it’s been 12 under, 15 under, 16 under, 12 under.

Those are 72-hole scores shot by PGA Tour players. These college players, many of whom are outlandishly talented, probably won’t go that low in the 54 holes of stroke play that will determine the individual champion and the eight teams for match play. Hoping to land a U.S. Open sometime in the future, Riviera should play very U.S. Open-like this week: the greens fast and firm, the kikuyu rough thick and juicy. It’s growing season.

The list of past winners here include Aaron Baddeley and Charles Howell III, Mike Weir and Corey Pavin. Ballstrikers, all of them. Big-boppers have fared well, too, with Haas and Phil Mickelson (twice) each recently earning titles. Try hitting a fairway-wood shot into the narrow green on the par-4 second, measuring 471 yards, into the wind. No doubt, length here is a huge advantage.

“You just have to embrace it, all of it,” Small said. Then he threw down a plastic practice cup on the 18th green, looked around at the natural amphitheater and the massive Spanish-style houses perched high above the palm trees on a sun-splashed afternoon. Then he smiled.

“I mean, does it get any better than this?”

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