Riviera is subtle and relentless, cool and vicious. The back nine alone includes two, maybe three, of the best par 4s in the world. Power, touch and precision are required in equal parts. But mostly a golfer must have patience. Get out of position at Riviera and the next step is to get back in. No shortcuts, no heroes, no water hazards, just grass, sand and glorious, menacing trees.
The PGA Tour heads to the best course on the schedule this week for the Genesis Invitational and the final stop on the West Coast has attracted a field worthy of the test. They’ve all come to California, seeking birdies on the golden shore. The 120-man field includes 17 of the top 25 in the world and eight of the top 10. They’ll battle for $9.3 million on the par-71, 7,322-yard George C. Thomas layout.
Riviera features some of the most difficult fairways and greens to hit on the PGA Tour each year. The average greens in regulation percentage is 58 percent compared to the Tour average of 66. The pros find the fairway 56 percent of the time while the Tour average is 62.
All aspects of a player’s game are tested. Scoring on the three par 5s is crucial to building and maintaining momentum during the round because the other 15 holes can be so stingy. An ability to avoid the short side and handle the kikuyu grass rough is important and of course putting on poa annua is a special skill.
The weather forecast is ideal. Temperatures peaking around 70 each day with wind in the 10-15 mph range. It’s cool in the early morning and late afternoon.
Riviera remains one of the few courses on Tour where even par will earn a trip to the weekend. It has every year since 2004 and on five occasions the 36-hole cut landed at 4-over par. Four rounds in the 60s are rare but the reward is a rather large check.
So as you sit at home snowbound this weekend, enjoy one of the treats of the Tour. As always, good luck.
Golfer power rankings
25. Vaughn Taylor – Ability to find fairways is beneficial here and Taylor has used his plodding approach to finish in the top 20 each of the last three years at Riviera. Has top 25s in two of four starts in 2021.
24. Luke List – Steadily plodding along in 2021 despite putting worse than the Tour average. Still, finished T-10 at Torrey Pines despite losing three strokes on the greens and has a solid record at Riviera, landing in the top 30 each of the last three years.
23. Gary Woodland – This is a man vs. machine pick; the machine won. The model I built for the week loves Woodland, who is healthy and committed to regaining lost form. He won his U.S. Open on poa annua and showed flashes of promise at Torrey Pines. Good opportunity to get ahead of the market and find value on a major champion, if you dare.
22. K.H. Lee – The Waste Management runner-up has fared well at Riviera in the past, finishing top 25 each of the past two years.
21. Joaquin Niemann – Really should be much higher but a surprising missed cut in his Genesis debut has subdued our optimism. Poa annua is his least favorite surface but his early season ballstriking numbers and back-to-back runner-up finishes are worth plenty.
20. Max Homa – Loves his native California and the poa annua greens. His seventh place at Pebble was his sixth top 25 in the Golden State in the last two years, including a T-5 at Riviera last year.
19. Kevin Na – The 2018 Genesis runner-up is playing the best golf of his career, loves golf in California and has the deft short game skills demanded to salvage par around the small Riviera greens.
18. J.T. Poston – Has three top 30s in as many appearances at Riviera and is off to a strong start in the 2021 portion of the PGA Tour season. Top 20s at WMO and Farmers, where he led the field in putting.
17. Lanto Griffin – Short game hasn’t been particularly strong in 2021 but finished T-7 last time out at the Farmers and that was likely addressed during his two weeks off. Tied for 37th in Genesis debut last year.
16. Hideki Matsuyama – Strong performance at Riviera through the years (four top 11s in last five appearances) and leads the field in SG: Tee-to-Green. Has also made eight consecutive cuts on Tour.
15. Adam Scott – The defending champion rises to the occasion on major championship quality golf courses. He’s 40 under here the last five years with a runner-up, T-7 and T-11 to accompany last year’s brilliant performance.
14. Bubba Watson – Predictably unpredictable but remains a three-time champion at Riviera and one of the game’s ultimate ballstrikers. The short game and putter are a wildcard. With his length and creativity, only needs an average week on and around the greens.
13. Cameron Davis – Game is so strong that he survived an off week with the irons at Pebble and still fought his way back into a tie for 14th. Future star.
12. Carlos Ortiz – Never worse than 26th in four Genesis starts and his game has never been better. Since his win at Houston has finished in the top 15 three times. Only weakness is his bunker game.
11. Tony Finau – Tied for second in the 2018 Genesis and seemingly finishes in the top five anytime he tees it up anywhere in the world these days.
10. Marc Leishman – Has a pair of top 5s and as many missed cuts at Riviera in the last five years. Believe in his resurgence, he enjoys the West Coast vibes and poa annua greens. Gained between 2.8 strokes and 6.1 strokes on approach in his last three tournaments.
9. Bryson DeChambeau – Making his first appearance on Tour since the Sentry TOC. He’s finished T-15 and T-5 here the last two years.
8. Xander Schauffele – Everybody’s waiting for Schauffele to win again and the reality is it could happen any week. His game is that solid through the bag. He’s 39th in final-round scoring average – it only seems worse. T-9, T-15 and T-23 in three tries at Riviera.
7. Justin Thomas – Probably should have won at Riviera in 2019 (second) and then missed the cut last year. Not hitting as many greens in regulation as he typically does (53rd) yet still leads the field in SG: Approach over the last 36 rounds.
6. Rory McIlroy – Has finished in the top 21 in his last nine starts worldwide but his best finish in the span is a solo third at Abu Dhabi last month. Record at Riviera is also exemplary with two T-20s, a T-4 and T-5. Time for McIlroy to finish strong on a Sunday also.
5. Viktor Hovland - This is his first look at Riviera but by all accounts should be an ideal fit. He’s won under the radar events in Puerto Rico and Mayakoba, now it’s time for him to battle on what should be a heavyweight leaderboard.
4. Dustin Johnson – He’s won five of his last 13 starts worldwide (with three runner-ups) and is 48 under the last five years at Riviera. By all means should be atop this list, I just don’t think the overwhelming Vegas favorite wins this week.
3. Collin Morikawa – Been a mixed bag for Morikawa since his stunning victory at Harding Park last August but two top 10s in the Hawaii tournaments is promising. Tied for 26th in his Riviera debut last year. Playing a hunch here. His game was made for Riviera.
2. Patrick Cantlay – Led the field in proximity to the hole and greens in regulation at Pebble Beach and set a course record for the second consecutive tournament. Appears in complete command of his swing and ballflight. Would love nothing more than to win his hometown tournament where he’s finished T-4, T-15 and T-17 the last three years.
1. Jon Rahm – He’s tied for ninth and 17th in his two appearances at Riviera. Hasn’t finished outside the top 25 in his last 11 starts on the PGA Tour and has a victory and seven top 10s in the span. He inches closer to World No. 1 this week.