Genesis Open: Course Insight

The PGA Tour waves goodbye to California this week following a stop at the hallowed grounds of Riviera Country Club for the Genesis Open. Formerly known as the Los Angeles Open and most recently the Northern Trust Open, Hyundai Motor Group has taken over sponsorship this year, and the event will be hosted by the Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods regrettably will not be in the field, withdrawing last week due to back spasms.

Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, defending champion Bubba Watson, and 19 of the top-30 golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings highlight a star-studded field that ranks among the best all season. Having said that, the star that shines brightest might be the course itself.

Known as Hogan’s Alley after Ben Hogan authored a historic trifecta of victories here between 1947 and 1948, including the 1948 U.S. Open, Riviera is a thinking man’s golf course. Few venues command greater respect among fans and players alike.

Riviera is a portal back to the days when a course tested all aspects of a player’s game. It doesn’t respond to the driver-wedge, caveman brutality of today’s game, despite its rather long 7,349-yard, par-71 design. Instead, it requires mathematical precision on fairways lined with soaring eucalyptus trees, solving the subtleties of undulating, postage-size greens, and dissecting the course by working angles with aggressive shots and decision making.

The House that Hogan Built is a timeless masterpiece that testifies to the dramatic possibilities and true beauty of the game. Risk-reward scenarios exist on nearly every hole, based on the integrity of shot-making, not the trickery of course set up.

There’s a natural order to things at Riviera that make it one of the great theatres in golf. Spectacular shots will be rewarded with birdies while inferior shots are punished with bogeys. Lackluster shots will simply remove players from any drama whatsoever. Players who dig their spikes deep into the bygone footprints of Hogan and play the course the way it’s meant to be played might even receive the nodding approval of Hogan himself.

signature 199-yard Par 3 No.6 with a bunker inside the green 

Off the tee, there are definitely spots players will want to hit, and definitely spots they’ll want to avoid. A narrow, winding, river gorge (barranca) is in play on seven different holes, and runs directly down the middle of the fairway on hole Nos. 7 and 8.

Although there are no real disaster holes at Riviera, and very little elevation change (other than the opening and closing holes), finding the penal undergrowth of treacherous Kikuyu rough can make approach shots downright humiliating. Kikuyu is basically Bermuda grass on steroids, and even the best players in the world are going to labor hitting from areas that resemble Brillo Pads.

Slopes near and on the greens will carry balls from well-played shots towards the hole, with inaccurate approaches funneling into run-off areas and bunkers. Poa Annua, bentgrass blend putting surfaces will again challenge the players’ patience, humbling some, while leaving others feeling fleeced. With rain in the forecast all four days, the course will play longer with softer fairways and slower greens.

This first hole is a short, 503 yard par-5, and has historically ranked as one of the easiest opening holes on Tour. A 75-foot drop from tee to fairway makes the hole play even shorter. And last year almost 75% of the scores here were birdies or eagles. The boomerang-shaped green is also the largest green on the course.

Hogan called the 236 yard, par-3, 4th hole “the greatest par-3 in America.” The green is protected in the front by a deep bunker, and slopes significantly from right to left. Shots played out to the right should carry the ball towards the hole for birdie opportunities, but shots hit too far right will be gobbled up by the Kikuyu. Last year No. 4 played as the fourth most difficult hole (41 birdies, and 98 bogeys or worse).

The signature 199-yard par-3, 6th hole is one of the most famous par-3s in golf, with a bunker placed squarely in the middle of the green. Depending on pin placement, bank shots will be effective with a drastic slope from front to back. The right and left sides of the green are completely different, with the left side being more bowled, and the right side being more crowned. Players who find themselves blocked from the hole by the bunker on either side will invariably be pulling out a wedge. Last year No. 6 played fairly even keel, surrendering 67 birdies, while handing out 73 bogeys or worse.

Jack Nicklaus never won at Riviera, but he said the short 315 yard, par-4 10th hole gave him “more options than any short par-4 I know.” Some players will take their shot with driver, but with a green that slopes back to the fairway and severely from right to left, and brutal bunkering protecting the right side, they better be feeling pretty confident with the big stick. Even for players who lay up short of the bunkers, anything right is dead, and the best angle to the green (which is only seven yards wide) will always come from the left side.

view from the approach on No.10

No. 12 played as the most difficult hole last year. The 479-yard par-4 plays into the wind, and gave up only 30 birdies, but inflicted 167 bogeys or worse. Bogeys Tree (named after Humphrey Bogart), greenside bunkers, and the barranca surround the green making it an awkward and routinely problematic target.

Players To Watch

Bubba Watson (two wins here in the past three years), Dustin Johnson (four top-4 finishes here the past five years), and Hideki Matsuyama (a fourth and 11th place finish here the past two years) obviously feel comfortable playing at Riviera, but only Johnson and Matsuyama are hitting Greens-In-Regulation at impressive clips so far this season. Watson was top-10 in greens hit both times he won here, but this year he’s in the bottom half on Tour. I’d pass on Watson this week. Johnson and Matsuyama should be in contention on Sunday.

Winner Prediction

Jordan Spieth is in top form coming off a victory at Pebble and is the only player on Tour to shoot under par in every round he’s played this season. If you’re going to ride the hot player, Spieth has to be your bet. He’s doing everything well right now, and appears to only be getting stronger.

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