Diverse field meets classic course at Riviera

Chris Condon/PGA TOUR
Riviera's classic Mediterranean clubhouse has watched a who's who of golfers win the Northern Trust Open.
February 13, 2013

By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM columnist

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – It’s only fitting that the annual PGA TOUR event in a megalopolis like Los Angeles should have a field as diverse as the host city itself, and the assembled cast of professionals for the Northern Trust Open that opens Thursday happens to fit the bill to a tee.

This was evident from the start of the week when the range at the storied Riviera Country Club – perennial playground to stars, pro athletes and Hollywood power brokers – looked and sounded like the U.N. General Assembly meets the World Golf Hall of Fame.

From the Hall of Fame category were Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and the soon-to-be-inducted Fred Couples, the ageless 1990 and ’92 champion and crowd favorite in his 31st appearance. This celebrated foursome was flanked at various points on sunny Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons by current and future stars of multiple shapes and sizes from different eras and far-flung nations.

The citizens of the world category included: Englishman Luke Donald, at No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking, the highest-ranked of the 18 players from the Top 30 in the field; Padraig Harrington, working his way back to form with a top 10 two weeks ago, playing his fourth straight event; Lee Westwood of Worksop, England, now a Florida resident, looking refreshed; the resurgent Spaniard Sergio Garcia, back for his eighth try at Riviera; rising Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa, who made his U.S. debut here in 2009. And the Korean stalwart K.J. Choi, whose PGA TOUR successes over the years has helped start an influx of 13 other Korean golfers.

Though Riviera will always be known as Hogan’s Alley, it’s definitely at the junction of International Drive now. At a clubhouse reception this week honoring 2012 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year, John Huh, Choi talked about his love of the golf course that can produce champions with styles as varied as Ernie Els and Corey Pavin.

“It is a course that makes you think,” Choi said. “It is not just for the long hitters. You have to be able to work the ball. I think it suits my game.”

Donald, who is getting a late start to his PGA TOUR season, believes the golf course suits his game as well. It should. He is among the game’s best iron players and has a short game that rivals Mickelson’s for efficiency, if not artistry.

“It's an old, classic golf course,” he said. “It's a course that has stood the test of time. I think what makes this place difficult is, you know, the greens more than anything. You really have to think about how the ball comes into the greens. They are very small. They can get firm.

“It demands you thinking about your whole game, from tee to green, which side of the fairway you want to be in to attack the pin location.”

What Donald described is Corey Pavin in his prime. Pavin, 53, won back-to-back here in 1994-95, slaying the giants with his impressive arsenal of shots, high and low, right and left, and his prowess with a Bullseye putter that rarely was more aptly-named than when wielded by Pavin.

“I feel I can be competitive on this golf course,” Pavin told Bob Buttitta of the Ventura County Times on Tuesday. “Now, I have to play very well to have a chance. I know I am going to be hitting some long shots into some greens, but it’s nothing new to me to have longer approach shots than anyone else.

“But if I play well, I can have a chance to be in the hunt on Sunday. I would not come play in a tournament where I didn’t believe that was true.”

The fact that short-hitters and long bombers alike love Riviera is a key to its enduring allure. Keegan Bradley, a legit bomber who, along with Mickelson, was edged in overtime last year by Billy Haas, is a huge fan of The Riv.

"I love this golf course," Bradley said. "I love everything about it, the history and the layout and I'm really looking forward to this week."

For a classic, old-style golf course to stand the test of time against the modern game is difficult. For it to continue to attract both the strategic players and the modern bombers like Dustin Johnson, Gary Woodland and Mickelson – who can occasionally still move it out with the youngsters – a course has to have retained premier conditioning, shot values and cachet.

Riviera has all that, plus ambience and history that remains relevant through time. There is still “Bogey’s Tree,” out at the 12th hole, where Humphrey Bogart used to lean, light up and take in the action. There is the Mediterranean clubhouse on the hill overlooking the 18th, one of the most recognizable golf clubhouses in the game.

There are the ghosts of cinematic giants like Bogart, Douglas Fairbanks, Kate Hepburn and Gregory Peck and a champions list that includes legends like Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Nick Faldo, Els, Mickelson, Pavin, Couples.

And warming up are players entering their primes, like the 2010 U.S. Open Champion (and 2012 runnerup) Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, and promising youngsters like Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium, making his first start, maybe even Blayne Barber, who pre-qualified for the Monday qualifier and then was one of four players to qualify for the tournament. He’s the young player from Auburn, the Walker Cupper, who called a one-stroke penalty on himself, later found it should have been two strokes, and disqualified himself after making it through the first stage of Q School.

You never know. Hollywood isn’t too far away.