Golf expert Ben Coley looks ahead to a world-class edition of the Genesis Invitational, played at Riviera Country Club on the outskirts of LA.
There's no finer place for the PGA Tour to bid farewell to the west coast than Riviera Country Club, playground of the very same Hollywood celebrities who strolled the red carpet at Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony.
Thanks to the course, the host, the timing and the purse, the Genesis Invitational has attracted its own A-list, headed by its own Holywood superstar in Rory McIlroy. The new world number one is back where he belongs, and this tree-lined golf course which plays to his strengths might be the perfect place to celebrate the coronation.
So strong is the opposition that the man he displaced is ninth in the betting, and Brooks Koepka has all the incentive in the world to step up on a scrappy return from injury in the Middle East. Between the two are Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and, after support on Monday morning, Bubba Watson.
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This field, which includes nine of the world's top 10, sits second only to the PLAYERS Championship in terms of pre-Masters grandeur. With the weather set fair, we're guaranteed four days of unmissable golf, and all but guaranteed a winner from the very upper echelons of the sport.
Encouragement can of course be found for those taking on the big five, six or seven - Lee Westwood, Lucas Herbert and Graeme McDowell have fended off more illustrious names in Europe, while in the five PGA Tour events to have taken place since Thomas won the Tournament of Champions, only Webb Simpson has obliged from the very front of the market. Torrey Pines saw both McIlroy and Rahm open the door and in Marc Leishman, there stood a player capable of taking an opportunity which he perhaps hadn't expected.
Something similar might well happen here, with Leishman, Sergio Garcia, perhaps even Jordan Spieth or Paul Casey waiting in the wings, but the front of the market is the place to begin and I'll do so by sticking with DUSTIN JOHNSON.
It would be fair to say last week's Pebble Beach preview wasn't my finest hour, and putting up the 13/2 favourite in a multi-course pro-am is rarely a good idea. Even had Johnson won, as he threatened to briefly with a sumptuous round at Monterey on Friday, it would not have been much to shout about having defaulted to the favourite in an event which puzzled me a little.
You live and learn, and you also have to forgive, which is why Johnson goes in at twice the price in an event with fewer variables, one which he's won before and will likely win again.
Johnson was a play-off loser to James Hahn here in 2015, a year after he'd finished second to Watson, and those were his fourth and fifth top-fives at a course made for his game. Riviera has long been known to suit a power-fade off the tee, a shot nobody hits better than Johnson when he's at his best, and in that respect it's a layout he probably feels a little more comfortable on than McIlroy.
After a ho-hum fourth place in 2016, Johnson ran riot here for an overdue victory in 2017 as the putter married up with the driver and he left the field fighting for second. And while not quite at that level since, slow starts have been the difference at a course where they can be deadly. DJ shot 74 on his return as defending champion and 73 last year, both times climbing around a hundred places over the next three rounds.
Having been 5/1 favourite when he defended two years ago, there are reasons he's now a 14/1 chance - not least the greater strength in depth, which now extends to Tiger. He's also got a form book which doesn't put him at the same level of most of these at the front of the market, but we probably ought to be generous in assessing everything after last summer's US Open as a niggling injury held him back before he ultimately accepted it required surgery.
Since returning, he's shown steady progression which only ended under difficult conditions at Pebble Beach at the weekend. Sunday saw Casey shoot 81 at a course he loves, Phil Mickelson produce a string of approach shots which missed their targets by a distance, Cantlay do nothing and Johnson fall down the leaderboard. It was a hard day for everyone and when the wind blows as it did, it's form we can bank for another, windier occasion.
The forecast at Riviera is for calm, sunny conditions and I don't think anyone plays this course better than Johnson. Yes, Bubba might have won here three times, but Johnson holds an 8-4 head-to-head lead, just as you'd expect him to, and I believe the way he played over the first two rounds last week and the weekend in Saudi Arabia suggests his game is very close to where he needs it to be.
Had he won in Saudi and finished fifth last week, it's no exaggeration to suggest Johnson might have gone off favourite. The margins separating him from those results may be less significant than this market implies, and he looks the best of a seriously high-class bunch at the odds.
Were it not for an inspired Hahn, the last six titles here might well have been shared between Johnson, Watson and J.B. Holmes, with Thomas Pieters, JT, Jason Kokrak and Adam Scott among those closest. The likes of Kevin Na and Scott Brown have overcome a serious power handicap to compete, but the handicap exists in a similar way to the South Course at Torrey Pines.
At both layouts, hitting fairways is extremely difficult, which rather than suit the accurate players tends instead to favour those who can rip it to within wedge distance and drop their approach shots softly onto small, firm greens.
Of course, the way the sport is now this rules out precisely zero of the main contenders, but it also helps support the idea that TONY FINAU could be worth sticking with as he looks to gain compensation for a luckless defeat to Simpson in Phoenix.
Without going over old ground, I felt Finau did very little wrong and a heck of a lot right on a difficult final day. The clutch putts he made early on during the back-nine got lost in the aftermath of a familiar tale, his pocket picked this time by Simpson, but really the only fault I can find is hitting it in the one place you cannot hit it on the 17th hole.
Whether that was a mishit or the wrong club, I really don't know, but now that the dust has settled we can instead look at the obvious form credentials of a player who was sixth at Torrey Pines and then finished second at Scottsdale, a course where he'd enjoyed no prior success.
Here at Riviera, where he was second thanks to an elite ball-striking display in 2018 and then finished 15th despite not quite being at his best last year, Finau can add to his sequence of top-10s by contending again and, perhaps, picking up a deserved piece of silverware.
I totally accept the argument that he has not won enough to justify the odds, but it's not something that personally bothers me. The history of this sport is littered with players who won bursts of tournaments having hitherto looked short of the required minerals, and Finau's impeccable attitude ought to turn him into another example soon enough.
This game is about many things, but ultimately we're looking at predicting what's about to happen. What's happened in the past is always an indicator, but it isn't everything. Next time Finau finds himself in contention, which I suspect he may do this week, I could well envisage him being just that fraction better and showing that professional golfers are the same as professional anything: they learn, they change, they get better.
Finau has had a week off to prepare and he comes now to a course made for his tee-to-green game, which is so obviously firing right now. He's been placed in three of his four starts to begin the new year and, at 25/1 and with the top eight paid out, he'll more than do for me.
The other players towards the top of the market who interest me somewhat are Collin Morikawa, whose coach said he'd win this or the Farmers; Casey, who has bounced back from disaster before, loves it here, and remains generally in good nick as he seeks to become another veteran winner for Europe; Bryson DeChambeau, who at his best merits a price half of that which is offered; and Sergio Garcia, the 40-year-old with the game for this and a promising start to the year behind him.
All are considered, particularly Morikawa, but winning here on debut is nigh on impossible. Like many, he's got some amateur experience - the 2017 US Amateur was here and he made the match play section - but it's not quite enough. He's one of the best young players around and is likely to continue to impress, but if he finishes 20th conceding an experience edge around here he's done very well.
With an outing last year to his advantage, JOAQUIN NIEMANN can build on what was a promising debut in which a second-round 66 showcased his liking for the layout, one classical in nature just like Old White TPC where he won his first PGA Tour title.
It's easy to forget that Niemann is still half a decade younger than the likes of Rahm and Thomas, and he's setting records. He was the youngest international winner on the PGA Tour since 1923, and went on to become the third-youngest ever Presidents Cup player when representing Ernie Els' side in December.
All of that serves to underline just how much he's achieved already, and I like the way he's played this year, hitting the ball really well and getting little out of it except for a good top-five in the Tournament of Champions. Wet, slow greens at the Sony absolutely baffled him, and he didn't do much wrong in a quality field at the Farmers Insurance Open.
He'll need to take another step forward, but that second-round 66 here last year offers encouragement and he was in no sort of form at the time. The fact he was able to rank 14th in strokes-gained tee-to-green on his first look at Riviera in PGA Tour play speaks to how well suited he is to the layout, and much better can be expected in terms of finishing position one year on.
Niemann has another couple of factors worth noting, especially his world ranking. At 64th, he's on the cut-off for the WGC-Match Play and while something like 67th or 68th might be enough to get in, it's still business he needs to attend to, as is the fact he's not yet in the field for the US Open at Winged Foot in June.
He might also take inspiration from Mito Pereira's emphatic breakthrough on the Korn Ferry Tour, the 24-year-old being a promising Chilean with a fine amateur pedigree in his own right, and this big-hitting talent can build on past exploits at the course - which include a good performance at the aforementioned US Amateur.
Corey Conners played the NCAAs here along with Spieth and Thomas in 2012, and they've actually been a reliable pointer to Riviera success.
Both Spieth and Thomas have had chances to win here and so has Pieters, who was the leading individual at that high-profile amateur event. Cantlay was alongside Conners and he's since contended here, while Patrick Rodgers also has some excellent course form since those days representing Stanford.
Conners, who has impressed ever since winning in Texas last spring, has the ball-striking prowess to play well on his return, and he'd be one to look at in the top Canadian market where Taylor has to back-up from Sunday's heroics and Adam Hadwin remains out of sorts.
There are a few other names I wanted to side with in some way, such as Wyndham Clark, a player who likes to hit a long, power-fade off the tee and has been a huge eye-catcher in recent weeks. He's one to look at along with the talented Kevin Chappell, who has vast experience of Riviera, calls it his most suitable venue on the circuit, and showed signs of life at Pebble Beach last week.
They'll get a mention when I look at the sub-markets later in the week, but for now the very top of the leaderboard is the focus and it looks sure to be dominated by some of the best players in the sport.
Posted at 1935 GMT on 10/02/20
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