EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a gambling picks piece — as well as a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
The 2020 West Coast swing on the PGA Tour finishes with a flourish in Pacific Palisades, California.
Riviera Country Club and Tiger Woods have combined to attract the best field in golf this decade. The 120-man Genesis Invitational field includes nine of the top 10 players in the world and benefits Woods’ foundation.
The field is competing for a $9.3 million purse on perhaps the best golf course on the PGA Tour, a classic George C. Thomas Jr. layout that measures 7,322 yards at a par 71 and includes one cool collection of par 4s.
The 10th, one of the world’s great short par 4s, tests a player’s skill, strength and restraint. But it hardly stands alone in deciding the champion. Golfers must navigate the 12th, the most difficult in last year’s tournament (4.34), the brutal 487-yard 15th and the second, which often takes away the birdie that was just given at the short par-5 first.
In all, the five most difficult holes at Riviera last year were par 4s. The 10th played under par (3.92) yet disaster lurked – 16 percent of the field made bogey and 3 percent made double or worse.
Weather conditions are ideal this week in southern California. The early starters will deal with chilly air in the 40s but highs in the low 60s and light winds (10 mph or less) should create a pleasant template for scoring. The poa annua greens can get bumpy late in the day, but all the leaders will have to deal with similar circumstances. One reason that Bubba Watson has won at Riviera in each of the last three even-numbered years? Over his last 24 rounds at Riv, he’s second in Strokes Gained: Putting and first in 3-putt avoidance among the players in this year’s field.
Like many of its west coast brethren, Riviera has smallish greens that demand precise approach shots. While the rough isn’t expected to be brutal – 1 ½” in height – it can cause problems with distance control on the longer par 4s.
Odds on the favorites (via golfodds.com):
Over / under winning score – 268.5 (15.5 under)
Rory McIlroy +800
Justin Thomas +1000
Jon Rahm +1000
Dustin Johnson +1200
Tiger Woods +2000
Brooks Koepka +2000
Patrick Cantlay +2000
Xander Schauffele +2000
Bubba Watson +2000
Tony Finau +2500
Hideki Matsuyama +3000
Adam Scott +3000
Jason Day +3500
Justin Rose +3500
Expert picks and best bets
Xander Schauffele (+2000) – The native of Southern California opened 2020 by losing in a playoff at the Sentry TOC, frittering away a chance for victory with a 3-putt on the 72nd hole. He struggled with his iron game at Torrey Pines and missed the cut, then rebounded with a T-16 in Scottsdale despite a poor week with the putter. All of Schauffele’s ball-striking stats are trending upward over the last five tournaments. His putting, however, has held him back (-0.4 strokes gained in the same span). Those problems should be in the past this week as Schauffele returns to the familiar poa annua greens. He’s gained strokes on the greens in eight of his last 10 rounds on poa annua. Schauffele has four PGA Tour victories and winning a fifth in a tournament held in his home state and hosted by Tiger Woods would be sweet indeed. He’s tied for ninth and tied for 15th at Riviera in two previous appearances. Hard not to like him at this number this week.
Last week: Jason Day (+2000). Finished fourth, struggling with the putter in a final-round 75.
Marc Leishman (+4000) – We’re not going as deep as normal this week out of respect for the quality of the field. It’s uncommon to have 90 percent of the top 10 appear in a ‘regular’ PGA Tour event but that’s the case fulfilling the vision Woods, the Tour and tournament organizers had when the tournament was granted invitational, limited-field status prior to this year. The combination of the stellar field and a great course means the best will respond to the challenge and a star-studded leaderboard when the final round begins Sunday should be expected. So how about Leishman going for the SoCal sweep? He’s recorded two top 5s in the last four years and also missed a cut, but the confidence he gained from a strong closing round at Torrey Pines could spur him on to another PGA Tour victory this week. He’s gained an average of 3.5 strokes tee-to-green and 1.8 strokes putting over his last five Tour starts.
Last week: Pat Perez (+10000) missed cut.
Justin Rose (+3500) – The former World No. 1 hasn’t been quite as sharp since he switched club manufacturers at the beginning of 2019. His putter has’t been particularly good dating back to last year’s FedEx Cup playoffs and although he tied for fourth at Riviera in 2017 and finished runner-up in Singapore last month, we just haven’t seen enough good play sustainable over four days to have much faith in Rose this week.
Last week: Matt Kuchar (+3500) tied for 38th.
Rory McIlroy (-130) vs. Dustin Johnson (+110) – Vegas knows and there’s a reason DJ is a heavy underdog at Riviera, a place that’s been a personal playground throughout his career with eight top 10s and a win in 12 starts. DJ just isn’t himself these days, a fact he confirmed with a final-round 78 at another one of his favorite haunts, Pebble Beach, last Sunday. McIlroy, on the other hand, tied for fourth at Riviera last year and appears poised for another outstanding season after opening 2020 with a smooth tie for third at Torrey Pines. He hasn’t finished outside the top three on the PGA Tour in the 2019-20 season, won’t this week and that will be enough to clip DJ.
Last week: Branden Grace (+115) vs. Brandt Snedeker – both golfers missed the cut, resulting in a push.