The buzz surrounding this week’s Genesis Open is off the charts, and for good reason. A star-studded field will tee it up on the hallowed ground of Riviera Country Club, headlined by defending champion and World No. 1 Dustin Johnson. World No. 3 Jordan Spieth and tournament host Tiger Woods, who’s making his first start at Riviera in more than a decade, will join the defending champ. In one of the strongest fields of the PGA Tour season, 14 of the top-25 players in the OWGR will join young guns and established greats vying to become the next Genesis Open champion.
Riviera Country Club is an architectural masterpiece designed by George C. Thomas Jr. in 1927. Thomas believed that “strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game”. Riviera is the quintessential thinking man’s course, demanding a variety of shot-making skills and constant strategic calculations. Avoiding trouble spots is just as important as hitting quality shots to the correct positions. It will test players’ discipline, feel, and patience. There’s no let up anywhere on the course, and it doesn’t favor one style of play over another. Ben Hogan won here by never missing a fairway. Phil Mickelson won here by barely hitting any.
“The Riv” has added a bit of length over the years, but the par-71, 7,322 yard track is not a course players can overpower. Power is rewarded, but placement is of paramount importance. Miss in the right spots and there’s a chance to get up and down. Miss in the wrong spots and you won’t have a shot. With a great collection of long and short par-3s, par-4s, and par-5s, Riviera has produced winners known for their precision iron play, others who were scrappy scramblers, and still others who built their careers with the putter. Long hitters, medium hitters, and short hitters will all have their egos and instincts tested by this classic gem.
The 6th at Riviera Country Club
The par-3, 199-yard, 6th hole at Riviera features one of the most recognizable putting surfaces on Tour. An often bemoaned pot bunker cut into the back-center of the green divides the putting surface into four quadrants. Back left is the most difficult pin position, but each quadrant poses a uniquely different challenge, and can leave players with a confounding decision to chip over the bunker or putt around it.
Weighing in at 590 yards, the par-5 17th hole is the longest hole on the course, but it benefits from a prevailing tailwind. The only real trouble off the tee is a large right-side fairway bunker. On second shots a horde of bunkers protecting the left side optimal layup area must be avoided. The toughest challenge, however, is on approach. Because the two-tiered putting surface falls steeply from back to front, staying below the hole is crucial to avoid dangerous downhill putts. An imposing bunker flanking the right side of the green will see a good share of action on back-right pins.
Riviera’s par-4, 315-yard, 10th hole shouldn’t be complicated, but this masterful shorty has perplexed golfers for more than eight decades. The genius of this hole is that the shortest line to the green isn’t necessarily the smartest line. Because the putting surface is extremely narrow, and slopes treacherously from right to left, the safe play is a long iron or hybrid down the left fairway. The temptation to go for the green in one remains irresistibly tantalizing, and only a perfect drive will hold the green. Misses in the right rough or bunker generally result in round-deflating bogeys or worse.
Players to Watch
“Ladies and Gentlemen, already 19-under par for 26 holes, just playing his normal game, the leader – Tiger Woods!” That was Woods in 1992 at Riviera, playfully enacting a brief fantasy before becoming the youngest player to ever tee it up in a PGA Tour event. Massive crowds will again follow Tiger around this week as he makes his second start of the year, and it will be interesting to see how he manages expectations as well as his game.
Tiger is winless in 11 previous appearances here, and his driving at the Farmers Insurance Open was atrocious. Woods got away with it at Torrey Pines, but Riviera’s kikuyu rough will tangle around your club mercilessly. If Tiger clubs down off the tee, shorter and more accurate will give him a chance to see the weekend. If Woods continues to use his driver and struggles to find fairways, he won’t make the cut. I’m predicting the latter.
Jordan Spieth didn’t exactly turn the corner on the greens last week at Pebble Beach, but at least he no longer looks like he’s handling the putter like it’s a poisonous snake. Spieth’s course management has always been the key to his success. His ability to course correct from round to round is something we’ve seen from him time and time again. That’s the good news for Jordan.
The bad news is Spieth has never putt well at Riviera, and he’s coming off his worst performance of the year last week in fairways and greens hit. You have to be firing on all cylinders in at least one of those areas to compete at Riviera, and despite a steady stream of top-25 finishes this year, Spieth looks like he’s still grinding his way back into form. Spieth to finish outside the top-25.
With a resurgent Phil Mickelson in the field and Dustin Johnson a final round fade away from picking up his second victory in three starts last week, it might seem misguided to overlook these two players. However, Ollie Schniederjans current form (two top-10s in his last three starts) and growing confidence makes him my pick to win this week.
Schniederjans was a green hitting machine two weeks ago at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and last year at Riviera he was one of only two players to record four sub-70 rounds in his Genesis Open debut. Ollie flights his wedges down and controls his trajectory and spin as well as anyone on Tour. If Schniederjans hits his spots off the tee, he’s going to see and convert a lot of birdie opportunities this week and pick up his first career Tour win.