John Merrick defends at this week's Northern Trust Open. From a purely statistical standpoint, it was an unlikely triumph. Only two of the previous 24 winners had broken through at Riviera Country Club for their first PGA TOUR victory, and only Len Mattiace in 2002 did so without at least one top 40 in a previous visit. Kirk Triplett also recorded his first title here in 2000, but he had already racked up five top 30s at Riviera, including a T8 in 1994.
While that combination is rare, Merrick became the second consecutive champion of this tournament not to record a top 10 in a previous appearance. In fact, he placed no better than T54 in 2010 in five prior trips. Before Bill Haas turned the same trick in 2012, Mike Weir was the last to make his first top 10 a victory in 2003.
For the record, these are facts -- updated with Merrick included -- that I cited in my Stats Suggest project last year, but they bear repeating. While the math can defend a seemingly surprising winner pretty much any week, we're probably going to see a veteran of some ilk emerge with the trophy this time around. The cachet of the field suggests the same. If you thought that the result of last week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was chalky -- and it was -- you'll be reaching for a larger glass of water after the conclusion of the NTO.
You can find my selections for PGATOUR.COM's fantasy game in Expert Picks. And beginning this week, I'll be including at least one question from Twitter in this feature.
Power Rankings Wild Card
Bubba Watson ... Lost a bid for a wire-to-wire victory (with ties) at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but his co-runner-up was his first top 10 on U.S. soil in more than seven months. The form is deserving of a spot in the Power Rankings but the slight fade from leaderboards earned the Wild Card label. All three of his cuts made (in seven appearances) at Riviera are top 20s, so there's the tipping point.
John Merrick ... Arrives for his first title defense on a similar arc as last year. Preceded his breakthrough with a T16 at Pebble Beach the week before. This time around, he's taken a week off following a T19 at the WM Phoenix Open. In his presser this week, he admitted that he feels like he plays his best in the third or fourth week of a run. Technically, the Northern Trust Open is s stand-alone start since he won't play next week's Match Play, but you can't argue with how well he struck the ball at TPC Scottsdale. He led the field in fairways hit and ranked T2 in greens in regulation.
Harris English ... Truth be told, when he's a polished touring professional, no ballpark is going to hold him, but he's already so solid throughout the bag. Sits T15 in total driving, 10th in greens hit, fourth in adjusted scoring and fifth in the all-around. Also seventh in bogey avoidance. His putting (128th in strokes gained) is the final key, but he's getting along just fine as is, evident by opening the season 8-for-8 with four top 10s. He's scored under par in 29 of 32 rounds.
Marc Leishman ... Sometimes a missed cut can be your best friend in the long-term. That's what happened at TPC Scottsdale in the wake of four consecutive top-11 finishes bracketing the holidays. The persnickety among your competition are suddenly cool, so it's time to reinvest. He's 45th in strokes gained-putting and 28th in adjusted scoring, but his recent unquantifiable confidence is palpable. Also has a pair of top 20s in four trips to Riviera.
Ernie Els ... There's something to be said of a veteran with considerable success and still able to hang with the younger generation. So goes The Big Easy. Beginning with his win here in 1999, he's 8-for-8 with four top-15s, including last year's T13. His recent lackluster form is irrelevant given he knows how to score and how to avoid the big number at Riviera.
Jason Kokrak ... Solid value across the board. All five of his cuts made (in seven starts) this season are top 20s, one shy of last season's total (in 25 starts). Ranks T101 in greens hit but 10th in adjusted scoring, so he's putting his experience to use. Third start at Riviera. Hasn't missed a cut yet but was an MDF victim last year.
Kevin Na ... Relative to the field, he's a flier, but he shouldn't be. Three top 10s on the season, including a T4 at Pebble Beach. Two top 10s at Riviera, the more recent of which a solo third in 2011. Ranks 37th in greens in regulation, 20th in strokes gained-putting and 12th in adjusted scoring.
Bryce Molder ... He's had his moment at Riviera, and not in the good sense, but he's grinded out top 25s in the last two editions. With a T10 at Pebble Beach on Sunday, 11 consecutive cuts made in tow and a surgical style of play in his bag, he earned a mention in the One-and-Done section below.
Greg Chalmers ... I had him penciled in on my short list of Sleepers and for the Global Glance, but I wanted hardcore gamers that look for this feature to know that I'm on board at Riviera. The lefty is always a risk in a given week, but with a T15 two weeks ago in Phoenix and a T10 here last year, the supportive data is about as strong as it gets for him. The clincher comes twofold: He leads the PGA TOUR in strokes gained-putting and ranks second in average distance of putts converted (Webb Simpson is No. 1).
Victor Dubuisson ... He's on some kind of tear for a guy that was staring at another season solely on his home circuit in Europe just four months ago. Instead, his victory at the Turkish Airlines Open swung open the door for a carte blanche schedule. The 23-year-old Frenchman has capitalized with another five top 15s, including last week's T13 at Pebble Beach. Still, because he's a non-member of the PGA TOUR, his value remains greatest in weekly salary games.
Charles Howell III ... At some point with certain golfers, you stop asking yourself when current form trumps course history. Here's Exhibit A. He leads the PGA TOUR with five top 10s, but since what remains his more recent victory here in 2007, he's failed to post a top 50 in six starts and hasn't broken par in 10 consecutive rounds.
Freddie Jacobson ... Here's an instance where current form has the leg up on course history. If all you saw were his T13 at Riviera in 2012 and a T3 last year (when he co-led at the midpoint), you'd be setting yourself up for a trap. After withdrawing following an opening 81 at Torrey Pines three weeks ago -- an explanation was never released for his decision -- he opened with a 68 at Monterey Peninsula Country Club's Shore Course last week before missing the cut on the number with rounds of 73 and 76. Because of his success here, use this week as a barometer for his form.
Rickie Fowler ... Arrives having missed consecutive cuts (Farmers, WMPO) for the first time since July of his Rookie of the Year season of 2010. Has not extended sound form on the greens in 2013 to this season. Currently 164th in strokes gained-putting at -1.161.
Charley Hoffman ... Last week's missed cut fell in line with his history at Pebble Beach. If we are to glean that he's playing to his strengths or creature comforts, it's again time to leave him alone. No better than a T30 in seven tries at Riviera.
Kevin Streelman ... Only start since a T3 at Kapalua resulted in a T53 at TPC Scottsdale. Only top-55 finish in six starts at Riviera occurred last year (T27).
Aaron Baddeley ... I endorsed him last week but he settled for a share of 56th place. Zero top 25s in his last six starts worldwide. His swing is a long way from where it was when he won at Riviera in 2011 and followed with a T11 in his title defense. Missed last year's cut.
Ian Poulter ... He's 0-for-2 at Riviera and hasn't played the course in competition since 2007. As I've written before, just wait for my endorsement at next week's Match Play.
Keep an Eye On
Charl Schwartzel ... Because he didn't crack my Power Rankings, one loyal reader questioned in an email if I had overlooked the fact that the South African was in the field. Suffice it to say that that reader is confident, but I'm conservative. Schwartzel tied for third in his debut here last year, but that came at a time when he had won twice and didn't finish outside the top five in seven consecutive starts spanning the holidays. His game still resonates more globally than it does on U.S. soil, but that's a relative critique given he's a major champion. After another flourish to cap 2013, he's opened this calendar year with a T15 and a T59, both in his homeland.
Jason Dufner ... Because his game should fit Riviera, he sets up as the classic example that it'll just take some time. Missing the cut in his debut way back in 2007 is probably ignorable, but he's survived his last two, neither of which resulting in a top 25. Last month, he chased a T29 at Waialae with a T72 in Qatar, but the value is that he's pacing himself for a well-timed strike.
Lee Westwood ... While he has a T5 here (2006) and another two top 25s (including a T21 last year), the Englishman really doesn't heat up until the PGA TOUR shuffles east to Florida.
Matt Jones ... At fourth in total driving (40th in accuracy) and T46 in adjusted scoring, you could make the case that he's Graham DeLaet's understudy. Positive results have been frequent, too, but this is just his second appearance at Riviera (T70, 2011). Flier material is properly priced in salary games.
@JessepMMO: "I kinda like Brian Davis as a sleeper this week. Thoughts?" ... I'm always careful to assume how anyone defines sleeper. It's a relative term. I have my own set of criteria for the weekly feature that publishes on Tuesday (and Davis checks all of those boxes), but my lineup would need to go pretty deep to make room at Riviera. In fact, that would be the case maybe everywhere. No top 25s among three cuts made in the last four editions. He did co-lead the field of last week's AT&T in green in regulation but ranked T22 in par breakers. Best suited for a salary game.
@TheRealTO: "Thoughts on how Joost Luiten will fair [sic] at Riviera this week? Super cheap option in salary games & seems to be in great form." Indeed, the 28-year-old won twice on the European Tour in 2013 and hasn't finished worse than T23 in his last five starts, a stretch that includes a trio of top-sixes. However, he's still a first-timer at Riviera and deserves pause. I'd rather invest in a rank-and-filer with PGA TOUR membership and experience than roll the dice in a short roster in a format where cuts made is paramount. His strength is off the tee and with the putter. Par is always a good score at Riviera, but it would be an underrated achievement for the Dutchman.
Returning to Competition
Briny Baird ... Food poisoning forced him to withdraw before his third round at Monterey Peninsula Country Club's Shore Course last week. He opened 10-over 81-73=154, so he would have needed a 62 to survive the cut anyway. He's 0-for-4 since a co-runner-up at The McGladrey Classic. If course history means anything, he'll turn it around at Riviera where he's survived six straight cuts.
Benjamin Alvarado ... Scheduled to compete in the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship on the Web.com Tour. The Web.com Tour Finals grad has been sidelined for over six months with an injury to his left knee. He hopes to make his PGA TOUR membership debut at the Valero Texas Open in late March.
Jeff Overton ... Since missing the cut at TPC Scottsdale, he'll have at least three weeks off. Currently 29th in the FedExCup standings.
I'm going to keep this simple. I want arguably the world's hottest golfer on his favorite course. Engrave Jimmy Walker into my lineup for the Northern Trust Open.
I alluded to this decision in this space last week and I'm not reneging just because he won ... again. In fact, the dynamics surrounding Walker offer a terrific example of why we must remain steadfast toward our objective. My goal every week is a top 10. If the target was to pick the winner, I might not be burning him. No one has won consecutive PGA TOUR events since Rory McIlroy during the 2012 FedExCup Playoffs. I also understand all of the reasons that support others, but I've had Walker circled for Riviera all season.
Here's the better argument: Let's assume he's been humming along nicely but hasn't picked up a win yet. Then what? He'd still be a winless talent in the deepest field of the calendar year. That he's gathered three trophies in reality only confirms the endorsement. Walker is in all of my lineups this week.
If you're among the contingent investing elsewhere, Bill Haas is likely to be a popular choice. One-and-doners love the comfort of course history and he delivers. Entering 2013-14, he had earned more at Riviera than any other course.
The remaining options consist of a lot of the same thing. Above-average current form suggests that approach games are precise. Success at Riviera proves that their style works and fits a largely unforgiving piece of property. But if there's one tiebreaker, it's experience. As I laid out at the top, most guys need to take a few blows to the chin here to understand where to miss and when to attack.
Two-man games have the pick of the litter, so much so that it may be difficult to distinguish between your A and B. Ryan Moore is smart. Bryce Molder is off most radars, but he shouldn't be. He demands attention.
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am: Jason Day; T64/MDF; $11,656.00; 0.880 FedExCup points
Overall Record: 11-for-12
FedExCup points: 577.793
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 4
Top 25s: 6
Missed Cuts: 1