Riviera CC: Star of the Northern Trust Open

The star of the 2015 Northern Trust Open in Pacific Palisades, California, is turning out to be the Riviera Country Club. There’s always been reverence for this course dating back to Hogan’s days, but I don’t recall it being as gushing as it is this year.

After 36 holes, the best the best players in the world could do was Retief Goosen’s 6-under. He was only able to shoot 1-under on the day. Right behind him are Ryan Moore, Canadian, Graham DeLaet and rookie sensation who’s in the thick of it again, Justin Thomas, all one stroke back at 5-under.

They are followed by a player nobody’s talking about, Argentinian, Angel Cabrera, who is known for showing up at very tough golf courses with high winning scores and playing very solid golf; think U.S. Open (2007) courses and the Masters (2009). He’s at 4-under by himself, but he made 7 birdies to do it. 

At 3-under are defending champion, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, J.B. Holmes, Paul Casey and Derek Fathauer.

The average scores are not in yet because one player, Alex Prugh, got stuck with not enough daylight. He’ll begin to provide the last data point at 7 AM, with Saturday’s tee times beginning at 7:45 and playing in threesomes.

But we don’t really need the precise averages to say that Riviera is one tough golf course this year. The lowest round of the day was 4-under 67 by Graham DeLaet and Hunter Mahan. But the good players like it that way. Dalaet tweeted that it was his favorite non-major golf course.

Yesterday I quoted Geoff Ogilvy extensively about his admiration for the cunning, par-4 10th hole where you can make anywhere between a 2 by driving the green or a 7 by trying to drive the green. What I didn’t include was this great quote about the underlying character of the rest of the course:

There’s not many holes in the world as good at [inducing bad decisions] as 10.  They are just quality holes out here.  Just kind of the — I don’t know what you call, the bones [of] really amazing architecture are under there, and everything is in the right place.

It’s an incredible bunch of holes, really, on not an amazing piece of land, really, comparing it to a lot of other great courses.  Cool and interesting stuff — uphill, downhill, you have to move the ball both ways.  Awkward angles and stuff.  It’s just a great golf course, really.  And it’s immaculate this year.  Nobody likes the drought in California but it’s good for a course like this to dry it out a little bit.  When golf courses are stressed, they actually play their best and it’s getting really close to that level.

And because it’s playing so hard and fast it’s street cred is being amplified, here by Justin Thomas:

It’s just a tough golf course.  I’ve only played one major but from my experience and from what I’ve heard from others, this is very U.S. Open‑like, I would say.  It’s very firm, and being in the fairway is such a huge premium, and all the spin you can get on it is really important.

There are good pins and the greens are small and severe, so you need to be precise with what you’re doing with your ball.

I love this place.  It’s really awesome.  It’s an unbelievable track.  I think it speaks for itself with the scores.

Asked the greatest challenge presented by the course, Goosen went the comprehensive route:

Well, I think it’s everything really.  Driving is very tough.  The thing is, if you miss the fairway, you can’t even stop it with a wedge out of the rough.  That’s the issue.  So if you can drive it well, you’ve got a chance of putting a good round together.

The rough is thick in places.  Yeah, the greens are definitely becoming, you know, U.S. Open greens.  They are getting firmer and quicker.  Some of these holes, if you get away with a par, it’s a good score.

I was working hard out there, keeping my score together [1-under 70] and hopefully this weekend it’s going to be the same.  It’s going to be a grind out there.  It’s not going to be easygoing.

Ryan Moore provided some dimensions to the problems the course creates; leaving yourself with 45-foot putts after great shots:

It’s just tough to have birdie chances that are reasonable on this golf course right now.  The greens are so firm and so bouncy.  I hit a handful of what I would say are as good of shots as I could possibly hit the last couple days and end up with 45‑footers.

So you know, that’s tough.  So you just know you’ve got to take advantage of them if you do get one around the hole. You’ve got to make it and I’ve been able to do that.

If someone got it inside ten feet, I mean, it’s an accident — it’s luck to get it around a couple of these holes.  It’s as firm as they are, they are where they normally put the pins here but they are firm and bouncy and it’s a little breezy.  It’s a great test of golf right now.

This is the fourth tournament that Jordan Spieth has played on Riviera (to include the NCAA championship) and there’s no doubt in his mind about where this year’s setup stands:

It’s the hardest.  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.

It’s very rare that I’ll devote this amount of space to the tournament golf course because my interest is more in the players and how they manage to summon up their best — or not — to play them.

But in this instance, while there was unanimity over just how hard the course was playing, there was also great adulation over it. They fawned over it and said how much they enjoyed it.

So while my interest is in the masters, given this kind of reaction from the players, I think it’s appropriate to take some time for a masterpiece.

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