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 weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
The West Coast swing is beautiful and exotic, traveling to Hawaii, spanning California and the Arizona desert covering an exquisite blend of golf courses that offer scenic views.
It’s also a grind. Early morning tee times and lengthy rounds become the norm. With everything geared toward East Coast television, players and caddies rarely have time to sleep late out west. The reward for playing well the first 36 holes is simply another morning tee time.
The PGA Tour saves the best for last as far as I’m concerned. Riviera is cooler than your course or mine. From the scene around the clubhouse overlooking the first hole to the natural amphitheater behind the 18th, the sweet Eucalyptus and one demanding hole after another carved through the canyon, George C. Thomas Jr. crafted a masterpiece that has produced an outstanding list of champions. Riviera seems like a place where Tiger Woods should have won multiple times but instead it’s the only hole in his ridiculous resume.
READ: Local Pebble Beach caddie helps NFL star Larry Fitzgerald to second Pro-Am team win in three years
Solving the par-71, 7,322-yard layout requires mastering the par 4s and a solid long game. All but one of the top 14 finishers in the 2019 Genesis finished top 30 in Strokes Gained: tee-to-green. This is also the Tour’s final stop on poa annua greens. Some pros like them, some don’t, so that’s a big piece of the projection puzzle this week.
Golfer power rankings
25. Collin Morikawa – After opening 2020 with four top 25s in as many starts in a five-week span, wisely skipped Pebble Beach which can be taxing – even for a 23-year-old. Poor putting on the weekend (135th strokes gained) has been an issue but he’s a ball-striking, West Coast poa annua player who should love the challenge Riviera presents.
24. Alex Noren – Pair of 74s on the weekend at Pebble plunged Noren into a tie for 32nd but he’s been steady, if not spectacular in 2019-20, making the cut in all five starts with a trio of top-15 finishes. Top 30 in the two key Strokes Gained stats and T-16 in his lone Riviera start in 2018.
23. Jordan Spieth – A final-round 67 (best of the day) Sunday at Pebble Beach earns the three-time major champion his first appearance on the Fantasy Top 25 this season. He’s quietly climbed to 37th on Tour in SG: approach the green and 13th in SG: tee-to-green. Has three top 12s at Riviera since 2014.
22. Sungjae Im – Eighth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained on the par 4s and No. 1 in scoring on par 4s measuring 400-450 yards. Enjoyed a rare off week after Scottsdale. Has made the cut in all 11 Tour starts this season.
21. Ryan Moore – He’s eighth on the PGA Tour in SG: approach the green in 2019-20 and has made six of the last eight cuts at Riviera with a trio of top-10 finishes. Recorded a pair of top 10s in six starts this season.
20. J.B. Holmes – Playing his fourth consecutive week, the defending Genesis champion arrives in L.A. on the strength of three top 20s in a row, all of which could’ve been better if not for mediocre golf on the weekend.
19. Abraham Ancer – Made the cut in both previous starts at Riviera with a T-44 as his best finish. Has been on a steady, solid run over the last two years, climbing from outside the top 200 in the world rankings to a career-best 29th. Strong play on the par 4s (13th in strokes gained) makes him a smart play this week.
18. Phil Mickelson – Back-to-back top-3 finishes many time zones apart is promising for Lefty’s legion of fans. As it pertains to Riviera, he won here in 2009, finished second in 2012 and tied for sixth in 2018. Only 139th in SG:approach the green or he’d slot higher on this list.
17. Kevin Na – Thrives on poa annua putting surfaces and his sharp short game has served him well at Riviera in recent years, finishing top five in 2011, 2017 and 2018. Made the trip south from Monterey Peninsula feeling good about his game after a T-14 at Pebble Beach.
16. Justin Rose – At the beginning of 2019 when Rose switched from TaylorMade to Honma clubs, he was No. 1 in the world. Rose won Farmers in his second week with the new gear but hasn’t won since, posting eight top 10s in 24 starts worldwide and is now 10th in the world. He’s had moderate success at Riviera (two top 10s in 11 appearances).
15. Jason Day – Sloppy putting on Sunday at Pebble Beach dropped him to fourth but all signs point toward good health and a 2020 resurgence. Day has finished in the top 25 in three of five starts this season and ranks seventh on Tour in SG: Tee-to-green. Never better than 62nd in four Riviera starts.
14. Hideki Matsuyama – That he’s 15th in the FedEx Cup and 23rd in the world reflects his immense talent because every time I see him on TV or in person it feels like he’s missing another short putt (177th strokes gained). Top 15 in the two critical strokes gained ballstriking stats and top 11 in three of last four trips to Riviera.
13. Brooks Koepka – With a missed cut in his only start at Riviera in 2017, we’re not sure quite what to make of the four-time major champion who relinquished his World No. 1 ranking this week. We know he’s a par-4 killer – 1st in scoring on holes measuring 450-500 and second in strokes gained on all par 4s.
12. Adam Scott – In six starts at Riviera since 2012, he’s finished outside the top 20 only once. Erratic driving (213th strokes gained) has been a sore spot this season and hasn’t played a tournament anywhere since winning the Australian Open in December. I’m never surprised when he plays well.
11. Patrick Reed – Sandwiched a pair of top-6 finishes around a missed cut at the Sony. Uninspiring track record at Riviera in two starts but over his last 50 rounds on Tour ranks seventh in par-4 efficiency on holes measuring 400-450 yards and second on those measuring 450-500 yards, which is helpful.
10. Marc Leishman – Loves the West Coast of the U.S., took two weeks off following his sensational Sunday to capture the Farmers Insurance Open title. He’s third on Tour in SG: approach the green and 14th SG: tee-to-green. Feasts or starves at Riviera with two top fives and three missed cuts in last five appearances.
9. Dustin Johnson – Despite spotty recent form, has eight top 10s at Riviera since 2009, including a victory in 2017. Hasn’t played enough rounds in the 2019-20 season to qualify for the PGA Tour’s stats. Sputtered in blustery conditions on Sunday last week, shooting 78 to tie for 32nd.
8. Xander Schauffele – The Californian is excellent on poa annua and solid on par 4s measuring from 400 to 500 yards. Finished T-9 and T-15 the last two years at Riviera and bounced back from a missed cut at the Farmers to T-16 in Scottsdale.
7. Tony Finau – The runner-up at the Waste Management two weeks ago, Finau has grown fond of Riviera, with a T-15 and T-2 in his last two starts. His recent success is easy to understand. He’s second on Tour in SG: tee-to-green and 10th in SG: approach the green.
6. Tiger Woods – A tie for 15th last year in trying conditions was the first sign that Woods’ body and game was in good shape again. His lack of success at Riviera is inexplicable, however, now that he’s finding the fairway more frequently the classic layout should be a fine fit for the world’s best iron player.
5. Patrick Cantlay – He’s second on the PGA Tour in par-4 scoring (3.88) and the Long Beach native has solved Riviera the last two years, finishing T-4 and T-15. Stalled on the weekend at Pebble Beach and finished T-11 but is 47 under in four Tour starts in 2019-20.
4. Bubba Watson – If you believe in patterns, Bubba is your man this week. He won at Riviera in the last three even-numbered years (‘14, ‘16 and ‘18), ranks 21st on the PGA Tour in SG: approach the green this season, 17th in SG: tee-to-green and finished in the top six in his last two starts at Torrey Pines and TPC Scottsdale.
3. Jon Rahm – The young Spaniard has reached a point where he can finish in the top 10 even when he’s not sharp (i.e. Waste Management). He’s fifth on the PGA Tour in SG: total, ranking inside the top 40 in all the important categories. Shot four rounds at par or better to T-9 in Riviera debut in 2019.
2. Justin Thomas – Let one slip away at Riviera last year, ballooning to 75 in the final round to finish second. Still, it was his second consecutive top 10 at the ball strikers’ palace, which bodes well for the FedEx Cup leader, who is top six in SG: tee-to-green and SG approach the green.
1. Rory McIlroy – Freshly minted No. 1 in the world, he tied for fourth at Riviera last year, his third top 20 in as many starts. Arguably the game’s best ball striker, he leads the Tour in the two key categories SG: approach the green and SG: tee-to-green. He’d love nothing more than to accept the trophy from Tiger on Sunday afternoon.