The leaderboard of this week’s Northern Trust Open looks more like the roster of the Witness Protection Program than a glamour PGA Tour event. A.W.O.L. are Woods, Scott, Stentson, McIlroy, Mickelson, and much of the rest of the top 20 on the World Golf Rankings. Going into the Sunday finish unfamiliar names like Will McGirt, Sang-Moon Bae, Cameron Tringale, and Charlie Beljan are dominating the first page.
Seemed like everyone and his cousin were in the mix come SundayEmbed from Getty Images
This is kind of a shame since Riviera Golf Club, a George C. Thomas original and the host club of this event for almost a century, is one of the coolest venues the troupe plays all year. The guys who love the place will tell you this is a player’s course. It requires imaginative strategy from tee to green and flawless recovery execution to prevail here. Adding one’s name to the list of past winners like Hogan, Nelson, Palmer, Mickelson, Elkington, Couples, and Faldo is a real career feather in the cap.
With the help of a four month drought drying out the greens and a couple of high tech Transformer rolling machines working the fairways this course is playing hard and fast like a major venue, which it has been on three occasions. The normally soft and spongy Kikuyu grass has proved bouncy instead and it has facilitated seismic moves up and down this leader board for the less brawny hitters that usually suffer here.
The guys don’t see many classic tracks like this that require so much forethought off the tee and into the green. Reachable par fives on 1, 11, and 17, brawny par fours that can be three-shotters, especially if the drive is wayward off the tee, and a gut wrenching driveable 315-yard par 4 10th which rewards and punishes with equal discrimination.
The genius of Thomas’s design is that the pin position on any given day can require an entirely different optimal approach line. Add to that amazing green complexes which can leave an array of unforgiving short side recovery shots from the sticky, strangling Kikuyu. Experience and humble deference to the challenges will help avoid the evil decree to the scorecard and maybe determine the winner at the end of the day.
In the early going a couple of Master’s winners, Charl Schwartzel and Bubba Watson have rocketed up the leaderboard with five birdies each in the first eight holes. With 10 guys within 4 of the lead at the midway point this looks like full-impact bumper cars around the back nine.
The glare proves to much for the witness protection crew as they slither out of the limelight and it comes down to names more familiar down the back stretch. After his promising first nine, Jordan Spieth makes three bogies on the back derails his chances. Schwartzel bogies 13 and 15 with a South African sandy for birdie in between on 14 finishing fourth. Brian Harman’s bogie and bounce back birdie sequence on 10 and 11 keeps him in touch a couple back but there is no magic after that. Dustin Johnson birdies 11 and 15 to close within one but fails to birdie the reachable par 5 17th and comes up one shy.
Bubba among his people stares down his drive on the revered 18th at RivieraEmbed from Getty Images
Bubba Watson chasing his first win since the 2012 Masters birdies 11 to reach 14-under and then slips General Lee into cruise control. He centers a couple of knee-knocker 10-foot par putts on 12 and 13 to maintain spacing and makes conventional pars over the next four. What’s left for Bubba is to negotiate the Eucalyptus trees protecting the angle on the difficult finishing hole, find the narrow green in the greek amphitheater, and make a par-no small task at Riviera.
Bubba cooly smoothes a knock down driver about 290 down the sprinker line, a short club to 15 feet, and one putt for 64 and all the Skittles.
Wow, 64-64 at Hogan’s Alley on the weekend with no bogies….now that is trusting it.