Ollie Noonan returns to preview a stacked Genesis Open
After weeks of Pro-Ams and multi-course rotations, the PGA Tour finally settles into a more consistent pattern of one track, 36-hole cut, pro-only events with a return to one of the most well-liked courses played each year, Riviera Country Club. Part of the schedule for almost a century, the Californian host venue gets rave reviews from the players due to the fairness of its layout and the intricate architecture of its green complexes, meaning good golf is properly rewarded and poor golf punished.
Don’t Let The Yardage Fool You, This Course Plays Tough
Although not overly long on the scorecard at just under 7,350 yards, the par 71 course can feel like a brute as a combination of narrow fairways, often with over-hanging trees blocking more natural flight lines, plus unusual kikuya grass rough will result in some very long approach shots for anyone who doesn’t drive the ball well. With that said, driving the ball well, whilst advantageous, hasn’t traditionally proven to be a real pointer to success in this event, with approach play seemingly more critical as the course has traditionally ranked inside the top 10 most difficult each year in proximity to the hole.
The undulating dog-legged fairways, strategically placed trees and well-disguised run-off areas around the greens make it a course well suited to a player who is capable of playing with a lot of imagination, which is one reason behind Bubba Watson’s record of three victories at the event.
Last week’s champ Phil Mickelson highlighted this last year when he said “He feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins. A lot of guys don’t feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30-footer in the centre of the green. I think it’s the reason why I feel comfortable, I like hitting more exaggerated shots to get to some of these pins.”
Alongside approach play, a sharp short game is a prerequisite given that players are going to be missing their fair share of greens in regulation – last year the field averaged the lowest number of GIR (9.3 per round averaged) since tracking started back in 2015. Of the nine winners this decade, six have ranked in the top 10 of the scrambling stat during the week of their win, with Dustin Johnson the outlier in 2017, having ranked 20th. The Poa Annua greens again add complexity given how much they tend to blemish as the days progress, so players with good track records on similar surfaces are always preferred.
The final thing worth taking into account is par 5 scoring.
The winners here have historically done roughly three-quarters of their scoring on the three par 5s presented at the track – with Bubba playing them in no worse than eight under during any of his three wins. With such a challenging set of par 4s, the longer holes are gettable and players who take advantage are greatly favoured.
How’s The Outright Market Shaping Up?
With such an iconic course hosting, and a re-jigged schedule meaning we’re just a month from the Players Championship, world-class players have arrived in their droves. Recent Saudi International Champion Dustin Johnson heads the betting at 10.0, looking for his second win at a venue where’s he also twice finished runner up, followed closely by a quartet of players between 16.0 and 18.5 who have all displayed excellent recent form but not a huge amount at this venue – Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm.
After that comes Bubba and Phil – with combined victories at the track – plus a certain Tiger Woods who, rarely for him, does not own a win at the course. It’s rare you’d get a field as deep as this outside of the majors so it promises to be an outstanding event.
The ‘Mad Scientist’ Set For A Big Week
In terms of my bets, having said that he hasn’t displayed much at this venue, I am going to side with Bryson DeChambeau (18.0) as my headline pick. The Californian native is best known for his scientific approach to his golf but this perception belies an ability to visualise the shot that best suits the situation he is facing and an incredible ability to execute. He’s displayed that time and time again over the past few months, having racked up four wins in his past 10 events, with no finishes lower than 19th in that time.
As you’d expect of a man in such great form, statistically he’s a perfect fit for this event, ranking 3rd in Strokes Gained: tee-to-green, 1st in scoring average, 2nd in scrambling and 4th in par 5 scoring on the fledgeling season.
Whilst his two spins around the track resulted in withdrawal and a tie for 41st last year, those results came when he was far from the prolific force that he is now. I prefer to look at a correlating win at TPC Boston in September – another tree-lined par 71 – as an example as to what he could do here. With all the talent in the field, there are few unexposed types remaining but given he’s priced alongside Jon Rahm, who is making his debut at a place that is notoriously tricky for first timers, and Rory McIlroy, who has no Tour wins in the time it’s taken DeChambeau to accrue five, he’s the one I want to be with at the prices.
Aussie Aussie Aussie
My other two bets are a pair of Aussies – Cameron Smith (51.0) and Adam Scott (39.0).
Earlier in this piece, I referenced kikuya grass, which is a rare grass strand in the US but very prominent in Australia. Both Smith and Scott have referenced how comfortable they have felt playing here for that reason, with Smith stating “Yeh, love the golf course, love the layout it really suited my eye… Looks very similar to home actually. I’ve grown up on kikuyu so love the grass. It’s probably just the same sort of mix and style of holes we get at home.” Scott went even further, “It’s my favourite golf course on the PGA Tour…The bunker complexes are very nice here. They’re not dissimilar to what we see down in Melbourne in Australia in some ways in shape and look. There are gum trees on the course and that makes me feel like home.”
If we just backed players based on what they’d said, we’d end up with a bunch of bets and a heap of losers but both Smith and Scott come in on great form as well. Smith enters this week on the back of five straight top 25 finishes, which includes a win in his home PGA Championship at the end of December. In his past two events he’s ranked 9th on the week in SG: Approach and he fills the same spot on Josh Culp’s list of Poa Annua specialists. He has progressive course form, reading 63-28-6 and he finished tied for 5th at Augusta last year, which has been a correlating course for this event – with Bubba, Mickelson and Adam Scott all winners of both events in the past few years. He is quietly becoming one of the world’s elite and this could well be the place of a breakthrough victory at a nice price.
Adam Scott is more exposed but no less fancied. As mentioned above, he was victorious here back in 2005 and has subsequently recorded six further top 20 finishes at the venue. The 38 year old may be winless since 2016, but he flashed a return to form in his penultimate event at Torrey Pines, finishing runner up behind world number 1 Justin Rose. Torrey Pines features the same Poa Annua greens found here, and there he led the field in SG: Approach, whilst also ranking 8th in scrambling. On the young season, he ranks 5th in par 5 scoring so all signs point to a big performance at his favourite track. I’m willing to overlook the weather affected Pro-Am marathon which occurred last week on the basis the format and conditions brought a lot of randomness into play, and believe the current price is very fair.
- Bryson DeChambeau – 2.5 points @ 18.0 (lay 5 points @ 4.0)
- Adam Scott – 1.5 points @ 37.0 (lay 5 points @ 7.0)
- Cameron Smith – 1 point @ 51.0 (lay 5 points @ 7.0)