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Whether 22/1 selection Phil Mickelson would have beaten 300/1 outsider Vaughn Taylor in a play-off had he made his 5-foot putt on the 72nd hole on Sunday and made it back-to-back wins for my column is all conjecture, but what is for sure is that Phil won't have many better chances than that to grab his 43rd PGA Tour win and his first since the 2013 Open Championship. He joins the list of Reed, Snedeker and Walker as west coast near misses for me in 2016.
The PGA Tour plays its final west coast swing tournament this week at Hogan's Alley where Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy go head-to-head for the second time in 5 weeks at the Northern Trust Open. Meanwhile on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Maybank Championship in Malaysia - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Before we move onto Riviera Country Club, for the 4th successive year we're running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 with an increased £250 free bet prize fund up for grabs. The competition is in the form of a one-and-done, so all you need to do is give us a single player for each of the 4 Majors to enter - full details are here.
The Northern Trust Open was recently boosted by the news that Rory McIlroy would be teeing it up in California. Make no mistakes, this tournament is well respected and difficult to capture so the battle should be fascinating to witness this week.
Course Guide: Riviera is a stretching 7,322 yard (down 27 yards 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 and the more accurate off the tee can grab a real advantage. 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 of 5 of 52 courses.
Riviera 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-around 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 twelve looks at the par 5s. Most recent winners Merrick, Watson and Hahn shot -11 (-11/273 winning total), -8 (-15/269) and -6 (-6/278) respectively on the par 5s.
A firm and fiery Riviera is one of the toughest tests of any golfing season. A little rain overnight Wednesday may soften the course a tad, but even if the forecast 3 or 4mm does arrive, expect more of the attritional golf we saw here 12 months ago. It's best described by highlighting that Riviera '2015 style' ranked 6th toughest for driving accuracy, toughest of any course for Greens in Regulation, 5th toughest for Proximity to Hole, 6th toughest for Fairway Proximity, 4th toughest for Sand Saves and 8th toughest for Par Breakers. Fairways were lightening fast making it extremely hard to keep the ball out of the rough, so a prudent play is to look for those who are adept at hitting it close from off the fairway. Patience, par 5 scoring and ultimately apex height won out in the end with Hahn, DJ and Casey reaching the play-off after Sergio bogeyed 17 and 18.
Winners: 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 Northern Trust 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 Jordan Spieth (Predictor Number 1), Bill Haas, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Justin Rose.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the OHL Classic / BMW Masters and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 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: 108/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California is here. It looks like we could be in for another firm and extremely fast Riviera Country Club in 2016. Los Angeles is famous for its beautiful climate and Pacific Palisades has only seen 7.9mm of precipitation since the 7th January. That is pretty much a mirror image of last year so unless tournament organisers have changed tack and have taken the decision to water the course far more, we should be in for some tough scoring. Winds will be light (10-15 km/h) and mainly from a south westerly direction, apart from Sunday when they turn from out of the north. With fast conditions any wind will simply add to the difficulty.
Doral and Augusta OWGR Bubble: Sunday marks the first cut-off for Official World Golf Ranking Top 50 qualification for the first World Golf Championship tournament at Doral plus Augusta looms ever larger on the horizon.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners of the Northern Trust Open since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this coastal test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to just how hard Riviera played 12 months ago and what challenges are likely to face the players this week:
Nick Watney: "The greens are very fast. You've really got to pay attention, because I think they are the fastest that I've seen them at this golf course. It slopes from front to back, which makes the approach shots really difficult to get it close. They are fast enough that they will definitely hold your attention."
Retief Goosen: "The course is great. The fairways are like fairways I've never seen before they are like greens. The greens are a bit bumpy places but they are rolling pretty good ‑ this morning they did anyway, for me. It's tough to hit some of these fairways because they are running so fast. The greens are rock hard. There were a few pins out there today that even with the sand wedge in hand, you couldn't stop it. Anything under par is a pretty good round around this course. Like I said, the course is in great shape, and the fairways are running probably seven, eight on the Stimpmeter; the fairways are so quick. Some of these fairways are pretty hard to keep it on the fairway."
Jordan Spieth: "It's challenging. It's playing similar to a major championship, and the rough, there's really no rough. That's what's great about this place is it only takes a couple days for them to make it like a major, and they don't even have to do much to it. The greens this afternoon, it's a lot of traffic and it's tough to make putts. The ball is bumping on poa annua, but there's nothing you can do about that. They should roll a little better tomorrow morning and hopefully get out there and find the fairway, because only from the fairway can you hit it high enough with enough spin to really hold the greens. It's a great tournament. It's one that I owe a lot back to. It was a great experience getting that PGA Tour start that then helped our team win the NCAA Championship that year.
Fairways are bouncing more than they have. I think last year, I can remember Saturday or Sunday, the greens were pretty wicked firm. They are pretty close to that already. Yeah, I think they had some front pins where you just couldn't get to them today. You're hitting 6‑ or 7‑iron into the green. If you land it on the front fringe, it sticks there. If you land it on the front, it bounds; you just have to take 25 feet and be okay with it. It took me nine holes to realize that. And so even with 9‑irons, you couldn't get it to stick. If they firm up anymore and there's still front pins, you're not going to see a whole lot of birdies on those holes but you can still take advantage of these par 5s."
Dustin Johnson: "You just know with experience here that sometimes even with a wedge, you just can't attack flags. That's the hard part about being here, especially when the greens are firm. You've got to play away from a lot of flags and try to use the slopes to get it close. But you know, I played really solid today, and hopefully go out tomorrow and do the same thing. I drove it great. I hit it well and putted well."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
For the record, here's the breakdown of Poa Annua and Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
The Northern Trust Open tends to be either friend or foe for short price backers. Where quality players can win, left-field outsiders can just as easily triumph, explaining why the average winning price over the past 6 years is 108/1. However there seems to be a trend in Ryder Cup years since 2008 as Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker (16/1), Bill Haas (50/1) and Bubba Watson (33/1) have triumphed in Los Angeles. All of these bar Haas (who had won the Tour Championship the previous September) qualified for Team USA in the respective season they won here and even Haas' win in 2012 has links to the Ryder Cup as he defeated 2012 Team USA qualifiers Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson to capture what was his 4th PGA Tour title at the time.
Looking at the incoming form for recent winners, James Hahn (200/1) 12 months ago was playing consistently rather than spectacularly on arrival at Riviera. 29-41-59-20-26 on the west coast swing prior to his win didn't highlight him as an obvious candidate but his preceding 29th at Pebble Beach did include a strong final round 67. In 2014 Bubba Watson arrived directly from a runners-up finish at TPC Scottsdale (and was still 33/1) and 250/1 shot John Merrick in 2013 arrived after finishing 16th at Pebble Beach following on from 57-MC-MC on the west coast. As I have already said - famine or feast!
Other form since 2010 as below:
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. It's Ryder Cup year so I'm working with the theory that a quality player prevails and that works price-wise as Rory and Jordan are both in the field. I am also selecting players who have been focussed on the PGA Tour this calendar year to date as thy ultimately win around here. 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.
Bookmaker Offers. A number of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week:
My selections are as follows:
Whilst the World Numbers 1 and 2 fight it out for favouritism - I would take Spieth over McIlroy personally with Rory's lack of course time and the fact that conditions will be on the firm side for the Northern Irishman - other quality sorts such as Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Jimmy Walker and Charl Schwartzel are sitting in the betting slipstream. I've managed to discount all bar Justin Rose who, for me, has taken the right decision to focus on the PGA Tour early in 2016 playing Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Riviera prior to the Oakmont-hosted U.S. Open (another course with poa annua greens) in June.
Such a United States focus hasn't been the case since 2011 when Justin played at Kapalua, Waialae and Torrey Pines before finishing 9th here - which, to date, is his best finish here in 9 appearances. Hardly stellar but for me that's more to do with his previous tournament scheduling rather than not liking the course. That links well with Justin's views on this course which couldn't be clearer, "I've always played Riviera with typically soft greens and I think last year for the first time in a long time, it got really firm if I'm right in saying. I didn't play, but that makes this course a challenge and you know one that I enjoy but for me, I've always felt like I've played well at Riviera. I've never really contended to win because I've never been able to put four rounds together here but I think I shot everything from 64, 65, 66, 67 - I think I've had all the numbers but I've never put four together. But it is a course I enjoy. It's a course that suits my eye."
I was impressed with Rose last week at the AT&T where he calmly dissected 3 courses he had never played before, finishing a comfortable 6th despite launching his 2nd shot into the water on the 72nd. His numbers were typically efficient with a strong putting performance catching the eye. Recent short-price wins at Fanling (6/1), TPC Louisiana (11/1), Gullane (14/1), Congressional (16/1) and Merion (28/1) have all been preceded by top-12 finishes and the same is also true for wins prior to that at Doral (2012) and Aronimink (2010). At a technical course where scoring will be a grind and where ball-strikers who can scramble will be a rare commodity, Rose has a great chance to shine this week.
Bill Haas is another who falls into the ball-striker who can scramble category and the World Number 40, like Rose, impressed me last week with a comfortable top-10 finish on only his second start at the AT&T. 6th for Greens in Regulation, 6th for Ball-Striking, 5th for Scrambling, 7th for Strokes Gained Putting at Pebble Beach and 5th for All-Round highlight a player who is clearly in great nick. That's of interest to us as Bill arrives this week at Riviera Country Club, a course where he has finished 12th (2011), 1st (2012), 3rd (2013) and 23rd (2014) across 4 of his last 5 appearances here.
Haas operates at the higher echelons of leaderboards when his confidence is buoyed by tip-top ball-striking so I wasn't surprised to see the very early 40/1 snapped up by value-spotters Monday afternoon. Bill is hitting the ball high at the moment (8th for Apex Height) and in a week where playing from off of the fairway will be inevitable, he's a consistent performer from the rough. He's your typical 'horses for courses' bet this week which requires little explanation and I'm taking 33/1 at 1/4 odds across 6 places on the basis that the leaderboard is likely to be extremely tight come Sunday.
I backed Harris English in this tournament 12 months ago at 35/1 and the same logic is more than relevant in 2016 where the 26 year-old University of Georgia graduate has shown a return to form in his last 5 rounds of golf. 31st at Torrey Pines on the face of it is nothing to get excited about, but from 63rd on the leaderboard English showed grit, professionalism and no end of determination in the worst of Sunday's conditions to shoot 73 and jump 32 spots. That's noteworthy when plenty of others in this week's field pretty much threw in the towel when things got difficult. From there, Harris took that momentum to TPC Scottsdale where rounds of 68 and 67 put him in the 36-hole contention picture and a Sunday best round of 66 delivered sole 3rd spot. He ranked 8th in Greens in Regulation, 27th in Ball-Striking, 21st in Scrambling, 11th in Strokes Gained Putting.
English has always been a real talent for me and what excites about him at Riviera is his form at other key tracks. Many of you will remember him taking part in a 4-man play off with Jason Day, J.B. Holmes and Scott Stallings at Torrey Pines last year - he can clearly play in technical conditions on Kikuyu. Another form line that has developed of late with wins for Phil Mickelson, John Merrick and James Hahn - you try linking those guys - is TPC Southwind where Harris English won his first PGA Tour title in 2013. 4th at Waialae, 9th at TPC Scottsdale and 10th here at Riviera in 2014 prove that Harris can string form together out west and to date both of his wins have come when he's striking the ball well.
I will finish with Billy Horschel whose high and natural right to left ball flight should see him in good stead this week at a firm and fast Riviera. Player's scheduling often surprises me and I have always wondered why the Floridian has never played at Riviera - a course which logically sets up to his strengths. So when his name appeared on the entry list for 2016, I made a note and although we would all like to see masses of course from, the 80/1 at 6 places each way is too tempting for a ball-striker who finished 8th at Torrey Pines 3 weeks ago.
With a change to PXG now seemingly embedded, the World Number 48 could do with a good week to guarantee his appearance at Doral in a fortnight and his last 2 appearances across both Torrey Pines and TPC Scottsdale have been notable for a return to the high quality Greens in Regulation play we expect from the 29 year-old. On a course where putting won't be as much of a premium, I can see Billy potentially contending as good links across Merion (4th 2013), Pebble Beach (4th 2012 Callaway Invitational), TPC San Antonio (3rd 2013 & 2015), TPC Southwind (6th, 8th, 10th 2013-2015), Cherry Hills (1st 2014 Bentgrass Poa Annua) and East Lake (7th 2013, 1st 2014) are too obvious to dismiss.
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