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Jordan Spieth's victory last week at Pebble Beach has set up another intriguing encounter at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles this week. A field that's headed by 8 out of the top 10 players in the Official Golf World Rankings - namely Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed - needs to be celebrated. Without Rory McIlroy's rib injury it would have been 9 of the top 10, making the Genesis Open undoubtedly the deepest 'domestic' PGA Tour event of the 2017 season. It also highlights how Riviera Country Club, wistfully known as 'Hogan's Alley', is regarded with the very highest respect and, as ever, it signals the end of the West Coast Swing.
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The Genesis Open throws up a number of excellent sub-plots this week: Dustin Johnson has a shot at World Number 1 on a course he adores. Hideki Matsuyama could also become the first ever Japanese player in history to reach the summit of the Official World Golf Rankings. We also have the mouth-watering prospect of Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama and Sergio Garcia all arriving in Pacific Palisades with the opportunity of winning back-to-back titles.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the World Super 6 event - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Guide: Riviera is a stretching 7,322 yard (down 27 yards for 2016 due to revisions at the split fairway 8th hole), 35-36 Par 71 old-style golf course. The classical course features tight, tree-lined uneven fairways, plus fast green complexes that average 5,000 square feet and feature plenty of surrounding run-off areas for overly aggressive or wayward approach shots. The course itself favours neither longer or shorter hitters, but finding fairways is extremely difficult - although the penalty tends to be the danger of blocked approach shots rather than thick, lush rough. The course features some of the deepest bunkers on Tour and fairway positioning is key as approach shots can be blocked by trees. Every season Riviera plays as one of the hardest courses to hit greens and putting is difficult especially from 10 feet and in on the fast Bent/Poa Annua mix greens - indeed it ranked as most difficult on the 2015 PGA Tour in that respect.
Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California: Designer: Neville and Thomas 1926 with Fazio re-design 2008; Course Type: Classical; Par: 71; Length: 7,322 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 0; Fairways: Kikuyugrass; Rough: Kikuyugrass 2.5"; 5,000 sq.ft average Creeping Bent with Poa Annua; Tournament Stimp: 12ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 72.22 (+1.22), Difficulty Rank 7 of 49 courses. 2013: 71.85 (+0.85), Difficulty Rank 11 of 43 courses. 2014: 71.21 (+0.21), Rank 24 of 48 courses. 2015: 72.59 (+1.59), Rank 5 of 52 courses. 2016: 71.03 (+0.03), Rank 21 of 50 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for Riviera Country Club and how they compare to recent courses that we have seen on the west coast swing:
Course Overview: Riviera CC is one of the most classical and undulating golf courses in the United States. It tests the all-round game of a player and undoubtedly takes time to master. Riviera and Torrey Pines are the only courses on Tour to feature Kikuyugrass fairways and rough. This may sound technical but be aware that West Coast specialists, plus Australians and South Africans, have a distinct advantage playing on this. Course experience is a real premium on this classical set-up which features a testing set of par-4s. It's a course that can't simply be overpowered, but the tournament as ever will be decided on the 12 looks at the par-5s. Most recent winners Merrick, Watson, Hahn and Watson again, shot -11 (-11/273 winning total), -8 (-15/269), -6 (-6/278), -9 (-15/269) respectively on the par-5s.
With a host of dog-legs combined with 26 yard wide fairways at the 300 yard landing points, Riviera always ranks in the top 10 hardest fairways to hit on Tour. However with relatively low rough, the penalty for missing fairways is not a key factor this week on a course where getting close to the pin is tough even for players who hit the fairway. Softer conditions in 2016 look to be replicated this week, so power ball-strikers will undoubtedly be at an advantage on a course where the Scoring Average splits were 6th toughest par-3, 2nd toughest par-4 and 34th toughest par-5 twelve months ago. However with bad weather forecast for Friday, as ever on a classical course the contenders will be those with the patience to play sensible golf when necessary, but with the fire-power to birdie the longest holes. Naturally also look for a comfortable Poa Annua putter, as putting from inside 10 feet here is always the toughest on Tour.
Winners: 2016: Bubba Watson (-15); 2015: James Hahn (-6); 2014: Bubba Watson (-15); 2013: John Merrick (-11); 2012: Bill Haas (-7); 2011: Aaron Baddeley (-12); 2010: Steve Stricker (-16).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Genesis Open predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Dustin Johnson (No.1), Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth, Brendan Steele and Adam Scott.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Nedbank Challenge / OHL Classic and includes PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2016: Watson 25/1; 2015: Hahn 200/1; 2014: Watson 33/1; 2013: Merrick 250/1; 2012: Haas 50/1; 2011: Baddeley 100/1; 2010: Stricker 16/1; Average: 96/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles is here. We should see soft conditions at the Genesis with an untypically wet January in Las Vegas also leading into a wet February. Conditions look set fair for Thursday, but rain and wind on Friday is likely to cause disruption. How much is difficult to tell, but play is likely to be suspended at some point, so draw bias is difficult to assess. After Friday the course will be receptive and undoubtedly more scoreable.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 7 winners of this event since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this classical test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Let's take a view from players as to how Riviera Country Club sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Jordan Spieth: "I mean, you can go back in your memory, and I can picture all the holes, I know where the pins are, I know where the breaks are on those greens. But you've still got to get on to the practice greens and then dial in the feel, dial in the speed. This poa annua putts differently than it did last week at the courses that we played there in Pebble Beach, and so you've got to be careful here. It can get away from you very quickly. And it's hard to get below the hole. That's the thing out here. So you start to go to the driving range and I'll start to try and work on some shots where you kind of float ones in, work on a lot of shots that you can loft up in the air more than maybe you would do last week. So there's still a lot of adjustments to be made, even if you are familiar with the place, because with the weather here compared to what it could be last week, normally it's less wind here and it's more positioning. You've got to be in the fairways, even with little rough, to be able to hold these greens. You start working on a lot of different shots."
Rory McIlroy: "It's a great golf course. We don't play golf courses like this very often anymore on Tour, and it's a real treat when you come to a golf course like this where it's not overly long, you don't have to really bomb it off the tee, but it's real strategic. You've got to place your ball on the right sides of the fairways. You have to make sure you hit it to the right side of the greens. You really can't short-side yourself here. You can't really get it above the pin. It's a real thinker's golf course and it's a real treat to play something like this because we don't get to play them that often anymore. Especially those, I think I saw a stat the other day, that there was more 3-footers missed here than there was anywhere else last year, I think by a long way actually. Inside sort of five or six feet is going to be really important this week, because you're not going to hit the amount of greens that you're used to hitting. You hit 12 greens around here, you've done pretty well. So there will be a lot of those holing-out-type distances for pars that will be important. I think that's one of the big things this week for me, and I've been trying to work on that."
Bubba Watson: "Today obviously with the rain it was easier. The golf course is accepting shots. But this golf course, the history of this golf course, this is one of those golf courses that we talk about a lot, because of the history. There's not much change around here. The golf course has stayed the same, same kind of grass, it's not heavy rough. It's basically getting the right bounce. You lands it six inches short, it stays short. You land it just on the green it could bounce over. It's all about hitting the right trajectories, hitting the right line, and hopefully on certain pins, hitting the fairway so you can produce a little bit of spin. So your answer is: It's just a traditional old school golf course that's got a lot of history. I love it because of the history, and as you can see, there's some trees down compared to where the first time I played here. I think I started playing here nine, ten years ago. And so you can spray it a little bit but still manage the golf course. But at the same time, you can hit fairways and manage the golf course. It's one of those golf courses where it can bite you at any minute, but at the same time you can score and you can imagine a bunch of shots around the trees and around the greens."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
For the record, here's the breakdown of pure Poa Annua and Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
There's undoubtedly a form link between Riviera and a couple of other classical golf courses. The course here features Kikuyugrass fairways and rough, a feature which is only shared with Torrey Pines. So it's hardly a surprise to see that recent winners like Baddeley, Haas, Merrick and Watson have all finished 11th or better (Merrick's was at the 2008 U.S. Open) down the coast in San Diego. 2015's shock winner James Hahn doesn't share that distinction, but he had finished 3rd on the Poa Annua greens at Pebble Beach in his rookie season of 2013. Steve Stricker, who won here in 2010, has no Torrey Pines form of note, however he'd finished 2nd at Riviera 12 months earlier showing he could handle the Kikuyu.
So I'm looking for upwardly mobile ball-strikers this week who have a penchant for playing positively at Torrey Pines and/or Pebble Beach. A high ball flight, the ability to grind when scoring is tough, plus the ability to move the ball confidently from left to right are also key attributes for me this week.
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My selections are as follows:
Dustin Johnson adores Riviera Country Club and this is a trophy he'd love to hold aloft this week for a couple of reasons. A pair of runner-up finishes here in 2014/15, 3rd in 2010 and a further couple of 4th spots in 2012/2016 make DJ very much the bridesmaid in Los Angeles and I'm sure that's something the current U.S. Open champion wants to put to bed. The Genesis Open is clearly one of the PGA Tour titles that professionals value highly with a winners' list that includes Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Fred Couples, plus recent Masters champions Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, and Bubba Watson. The last 4 players highlight the advantage that power ball-strikers have had at 'Hogan's Alley' in recent times and a soft course in 2017 is likely to play into Johnson's hands with a power fade which is perfect for the flow of the course. His play last week when finishing 3rd behind Jordan Spieth was consistent and accurate (13th Greens in Regulation, 7th in Approach Proximity, 11th Putting Average), but ultimately on a putter's golf course the Texan held the advantage. Riviera though, with it's additional length and requirement for a high ball-flight, should see the tables turn ever so slightly. It's also worth highlighting that Dustin Johnson has a shot to become World Number 1 this week and with 5 top-5 finishes here in 9 starts, he's clearly arriving in at Riviera with a huge opportunity to become only the 20th player to hold the top spot. RESULT: Winner
I also like Sergio Garcia this week on a course where he's done well at in the past. Sergio has always been one to follow when he's happy in his home life and his recent engagement to ex-Golf Channel reporter Angela Akins worked wonders in Dubai where, despite unspectacular course form, he defeated Henrik Stenson relatively comfortably with a -19/271 total. 6th at Hogan's Alley in 2007, 4th in 2012 and 4th again 2 years ago shows the Spaniard's compatibility with Riviera and he had the tournament in his hands in 2015 before bogeying the last 2 holes to ultimately miss out on a playoff by a single shot. But Sergio seems a different character right now and his current from of 9th (Sheshan)-19th (Earth Course)-11th (Sentosa)-1st (Dubai) has been driven by Ball-Striking performances of 2nd, 3rd, 2nd and 1st. As we know the World Number 9 is a 305 yard average driver and his power fade is the stuff of legend, all of which is the perfect recipe for Riviera Country Club.
I also like Sergio this week on the basis that he's a player who backs up wins ably. Take last summer where his PGA Tour win at TPC Four Seasons was backed up by 5th at the Oakmont-hosted U.S. Open and replicated at Troon. If we go back to 2008, follow-up results after a Garcia win read: 4th, 8th, 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 19th (first outing of 2014), 8th, 4th and 5th. That's a win plus 5 each-way returns after his last 9 wins. That's more than a good enough strike rate for me to go with him this week with 7 places each-way available. RESULT: T49
J.B. Holmes hit his straps over the weekend on Pebble Beach Golf Links. 10 Birdies with 2 Bogeys, driven by some excellent approach play and a warmer putter, delivered a score of -8/136, taking the Kentuckian into the top 25 of the final leaderboard. No great shakes, but what did become clear was that the World Number 32 put in his best ball-striking performance since the PlayOffs on a soft course which tends to suit his power game. With some cut in the Riviera turf looking assured, I really like the look of Holmes this week who's already been nibbled in from opening prices of anything up to 66/1. With a Hogan's Alley record which reads 7th (2008), 6th (2009), 3rd (2010), 12th (2011), 8th (2012) and 11th twelve months ago, you can see why he's been backed already, plus it's obvious from his career CV that he gets on with the classical aspects of the course. That classical leaning is something that has become clear in recent times: 10th at Bay Hill (2014), 1st at Quail Hollow (2014), 12th at Cherry Hills (2014), 2nd at Torrey Pines (2015), 10th at Pebble Beach (2015), 8th at East Lake (2015), 6th at Torrey Pines (2016), 4th at Augusta (2016), 4th at Muirfield Village (2016), 3rd at Troon (2016) and 4th at Crooked Stick (2016) certainly paint a vivid picture. Bubba Watson, who's twice been a winner here in the past 3 years, has clearly had success at a number of those courses too, but he's also done well at Doral and the GC of Houston, 2 courses where Holmes finished runner-up and won at in 2015. So it's clear that the 2016 Ryder Cup star can mix it these days at the bigger tournaments on tough golf courses. I like his chances this week. RESULT: T34
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