The PGA Tour ends its West Coast Swing this week, with a fitting finale in Riviera, one of the most storied courses on the regular rotation. Famously known as Hogan’s Alley, Riviera has a number of signature holes such as the 6th with its bunker-pocked green and the 10th, which is one of the great drivable par 4s in golf. The Californian track is a 7,322-yard par 71 and perennially ranks as one of the most challenging par 71s on the slate, mainly due to narrow fairways and tiny Poa Annua greens with hard to read breaks. Numerous pros call the classic Pacific Palisades venue their favourite track, with the likes of Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Jimmy Walker and Bill Haas all verbalising their love for the course.
Despite the aforementioned narrow fairways, those experiencing success in recent times have tended to be guys that get the ball moving off the tee rather than those with a more surgical touch. Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Charl Schwartzel, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott all have sterling records at the course and all feature on the list of brawn over beauty off the tee. Interestingly, all on that list – bar DJ – also have Masters wins to their name so there may well be something of a link between Augusta and this course, especially when considering that Fred Couples, Mike Weir, and Nick Faldo also have won at both courses.
As well as the ability to drive the ball a long way, the ability to scramble is crucial on a layout which features some of the smallest greens on the PGA Tour.
With tough to find fairways leading to guys coming into the greens from the rough, you can always expect guys to have to scramble a significant portion of the time at Riviera so a sharp short game is crucial, and the ability to save par vital.
Given the scarcity of greens hit, a nod to strokes gained: approach is worth considering too, especially considering the number of times players will be out of position off the tee.
Finally on the stats front, despite there only being three of them on the card, par 5 scoring looks to be massive, and of the previous victors, only Steve Stricker (2010) and Aaron Baddeley (2011) did not get at least half their scoring done on the longer holes. Indeed, in 2013 John Merrick finished -11 for the week having played the par 5s in -11, and in 2007 and 2009 Charles Howell III and Phil Mickelson respectively played them in 12 under for the week. As a result, we’ll be looking for those ranking highly in the par 5 scoring average stat.
The iconic course has brought out a stellar field, with world number 1 and defending champ Dustin Johnson heading the market at 6.6. Johnson’s record is outstanding here, having finished in the top four in each the past four seasons (and six of eight longer term) but having squandered a winning position to a 500/1 rag last week after trading odds on last Sunday, I’m happy enough to leave him alone at the price.
The big names continue with Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Race to Dubai winner Tommy Fleetwood and a certain Tiger Woods all teeing it up this week, but they all look priced about right (if not too short) to me and there is really only one name at the head of the market who holds interest to me from a betting perspective – our recent nearly man, Phil Mickelson.
Lefty finished a three-shot runner-up at Pebble Beach, having given himself too much to do on Sunday after a disappointing level par third round. The performance followed a 5th place finish the prior week at TPC Scottsdale, so it is clear he is approaching his best form and looks to have his mojo back after a down year in 2017. His interview following his finish at Pebble was illuminating as he spoke of the fact that he was hitting the ball as well as he has for a long time and specifically mentioned Riviera being a course that he likes a lot.
That final comment was no surprise as he’s twice been a winner here, with two further playoff losses so if he can transfer his form, he is entitled to go very close once again. The 47-year-old is currently ranking 12th in strokes gained approach, and 5th in strokes gained-putting plus ranked 2nd in the field in scrambling across the two tracked rounds last weekend.
On a course he loves, in outstanding form and hitting the Augusta link as a past winner, Phil ticks a lot of boxes and the price looks generous given his recent body of work.
My next pick is the big Belgian bomber, Thomas Pieters. Pieters disappointed when failing to seal the deal in Abu Dhabi after leading at 54 holes, but I’m willing to give him another try at another ideal track for him. The world number 38 shot a bogey-free 63 here last year to close out the tournament as runner-up and he spoke of his love for the course straight after, talking up the fact that it suited his eye and was ‘so much fun to play’.
Indeed, Pieters had experienced previous success at the course when winning the highly competitive 2012 NCAA National Championship and he too ticks the Augusta box having finished 4th on debut last year. Thus far in his career, he’s displayed a tendency to play his best golf in the most stellar fields and this week certainly fits that bill. At 51.0, he looks well overpriced and should trade significantly shortly throughout.
My final two picks are somewhat more speculative but definitely represent value at the prices. Like Mickelson, Jamie Lovemark is a native Californian who was a superstar amateur, racking up numerous college victories at USC. As a West Coast local, he’s well used to Poa Annua greens and spoke of his love for the unique strain of grass just prior to this season’s Safeway Open, insinuating that he felt extremely comfortable on the surface.
His Riviera form line to date shows T39-T20, and whilst he’s never contended, this is a track that takes some getting used to so I’m encouraged by those solid finishes and further encouraged by a slightly hidden performance last time out at TPC Scottsdale where he ranked in the top 10 in both driving distance and strokes gained: approach on route to a T52 finish.
If he scrambles well this week, he should outrun his huge odds with Riviera looking an ideal spot for him to break his maiden on Tour.
Patrick Rodgers rounds off my staking plan and is another who was a superstar amateur that hasn’t quite transferred that form to the PGA Tour just yet. A member of the much-vaunted class of 2011, Rodgers equalled Tiger Woods’ Stanford record of 11 wins, and that Californian college experience appears to have stood him in good stead in his pro career as he currently stands 10th on the list of Poa Annua specialists and 4th on the list of Californian course specialists according to futureoffantasy.com.
The 25-year-old sat in the top 10 here entering the back nine on Sunday last season but faded down the stretch with three late bogeys pushing him out to 22nd, but he displayed a clear affinity for the course which marked him as one to watch in my tracker.
I was delighted, therefore, when he ended a run of barren form with an 8th place finish last week as it looks like he’s found his groove at a perfect time.
At a three-figure price, he looks a very nice value proposition from a trading perspective and I expect him to feature on the leaderboard again come Sunday.
- Phil Mickelson – 2 points win @ 28.0 (lay back 4 points @ 6.0)
- Thomas Pieters – 1 point win @ 51.0 (lay back 4 points @ 8.0)
- Patrick Rodgers – 1 point win @ 126.0 (lay back 7.5 points @ 13.0)
- Jamie Lovemark – 1 point win @ 261.0 (lay back 11 points @ 21.0)