Our man takes a detailed look at this week's PGA Tour action, where a stellar field assembles in California for the Northern Trust Open. What will it take to win at Riviera? Read Steve's preview here...
“Charl Schwartzel is in the form of his life, has absolutely the right game for the gaff and is a very fair price at [24.0].”
First played in 1926, this will be the 87th staging of the Northern Trust Open, which, outside of the majors, is the fourth oldest event on the PGA Tour.
Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, California
Par 71, 7349 yards
Stroke index in 2012 - 72.62
Riviera has a number of interesting quirks. There's a green in the middle of the par three 6th hole, the 10th is a drivable par four and the fairways are blanketed in Kikuya - a tough strain of grass imported from Africa over 80 years ago. Polo was a popular sport in LA back then and Kikuya was used on the polo grounds in the area but it wasn't long before it had invaded and taken over at Riviera. The Kikuya makes for perfect lies on the fairway, perching the ball up high on its stiff leaves, but it's a different story if you find the rough. The grass grabs and buries the ball and control out of the thick stuff is minimal at best. This will be the 51st staging of the event at Riviera.
Live on Sky Sports all four days - 8.00pm on Thursday and Friday and 6.00pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Last Five Winners
2012 - Bill Haas -7 (playoff)
2011 - Aaron Baddeley -12
2010 - Steve Stricker -16
2009 - Phil Mickelson -15
2008 - Phil Mickelson -12
What will it take to win the Northern Trust Open?
Finding the fairways and even the right portion of the fairways is key in order to set up birdie opportunities. There are a lot of dogleg holes so an ability to shape the ball both ways is very beneficial.
You have to take advantage of the three par fives and you have to be able to scramble well - the best scrambler for the week has finished either first or second in each of the last three years.
Is there an identikit winner?
Winners here have a real touch of class about them - 30 of the 50 Riviera winners to date have won majors. And even those that haven't tend to be top-notch stars. Recent winners without a biggy on their CVs, like Bill Haas, Steve Stricker and Adam Scott, to name but three, are renowned quality ball-strikers whose careers perhaps deserve a major.
Experienced accurate types do best and multiple winners are fairly common - 15 players have won the event more than once. On the whole, the shock winners have come when the track has been wet and easier to score on. When the course is dry, as it's reported to be this year, the event tends to go to the better players.
The par five first is the easiest hole on the course and a par there is a poor score. In contrast, the final hole is the second toughest on the track (12th is the toughest) and a par there is always a welcome score.
It's hard to make up ground at Riviera and looking right back to 1996, tied 13th (Kirk Triplett in 2000) is the furthest back any winner has been at halfway. This is not a catch-up course - concentrate on the leaders.
Given that Phil Mickelson has either won or been beaten in a playoff in four of the last six Northern Trust Opens it's hardly surprising that he heads the market. Will he contend this week? Well, your guess is as good as mine. He was at his fabulous best in Phoenix two weeks ago but couldn't back that up at Pebble Beach. Can he bounce back here? Don't be surprised if he does.
Sergio Garcia finished last year's renewal with a scintillating 64 to finish 4th and he was 6th two years previous so he has course form. He appears to have sorted his putting out at last but he's not for me at such a short price.
Luke Donald loves Riviera so it's no surprise to see him in the line up but should he have had a pipe-opener before now? I wrote in Monday's De-Brief about the perils of backing players coming back after a long layoff and that's enough of a reason for me to look elsewhere.
I couldn't leave Phil Mickelson out of the portfolio but I've merely had a saver. I got caught out thinking I'd back him in-running at Phoenix and I don't want to make that mistake again.
The only negative I can see about Charl Schwartzel this week is that he's never played Riviera before but being from South Africa, he'll be perfectly at home on the Kikuya fairways and I can see him going really well. He's in the form of his life, has absolutely the right game for the gaff and is a very fair price at [24.0].
The first player I backed this week was Bubba Watson, who I was very surprised to see as big as [30.0]. He's shortened up a bit now but is still a fair price. His form here is OK without being spectacular but he's on an upward curve and his stats of late have been very good. He's suffered a couple of bouts of sickness in the early part of the year and wasn't 100% in Phoenix two weeks ago but still finished the event on a high with a nice round of 64. Nobody shapes the ball quite like Bubba, who finds it impossible to hit it straight, so he's another that looks to have just the right game for Riviera.
I have Ryan Moore in mind for an upcoming event but I can see him going well here first. He played very well at Phoenix and he has course form in the bank to boot (14th last year and 4th in 2011). There aren't any negatives that I can see and as hard as I tried, I couldn't leave him out.
KJ Choi is starting to get a little long in the tooth and he hasn't won on the PGA Tour since the 2011 Players Championship but he's worth chancing at a big price. He's always enjoyed Riviera (four top-tens) and if he's going to win again, he might just do so here.
And finally, being as its Valentine's Day on Thursday I thought I'd have a soppy sentimental wager on Freddy 'Boom Boom' Couples. Incredibly, this will be his 31st straight appearance in the event. He's already won it twice and he traded as low as [3.0] in-running just two years ago, before collapsing during round four.
It's highly likely that his ailing back and wilting nerves will fail to hold out for long but nobody knows the course better and you just never know, he may just have one last hoorah left in him and if he does, he'll trade considerably shorter than he does now.
I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
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