Frazzled looks at the 2016 Northern Trust Open from Riviera Country Club and has selections of Charl Schwartzel in two markets, with possibly one or two more to follow.
Event and Venue:
One again this year the final strokeplay event of the West Coast Swing takes us to Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California. This will be the last time that it is under the Northern Trust banner, as it will be sponsored by Hyundai next year, but the course remains the same and is likely to do so for many years to come.
The Riviera course was designed by George Thomas and opened in 1927. There have been a number of redesigns since then, most recently by Tom Fazio in 2008 (also responsible for the redesign of Oak Hill ahead of the 2013 US PGA Championship), but the objective has been to restore the course rather than restructure (other than lengthening the layout to some degree). There has been no wish to change the configuration and quirks on the course as it provides it with its character. The quirks no more apparent than on the 6th hole where the two tiered green with a bunker in the middle of it. The greens themselves have been restored by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Cooke and should be in excellent condition. There have been minor changes since 2015, with the most notable being the reduction of the Par 4 8th hole by 27 yards, reducing the overall length to 7,322 yards, while still playing to a Par 71.
This is one of the best venues on the PGA Tour and has staged three majors, most recently playing host to the 1995 USPGA Championship won by Steve Elkington and it is surprising that it has been left out of the rotation since then. It is a supreme test of shot making skills and victory will not be achieved by simply letting it fly off the tee. It ranked as the toughest of the Par 71 courses on the PGA Tour in 2015, where the Greens in Regulation percentage of 51.38% was also the lowest on the Tour and it ranked as the most difficult in terms of Putts from 3 feet, from 4-8 feet and from inside 10 feet in 2015 (thanks to Rob Bolton's PGA Power Rankings for this).
This is a venue that was famed for the cream rising to the Top and the following stats are very telling;
- Major winners have won 30 of the 53 events here.
- 11 US Masters Champions have won here with 18 titles between them.
However James Hahn was another almost impossible winner to find last year when he beat Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey in a playoff and he followed John Merrick who provided a surprise in 2013 and Aaron Baddeley who was also very difficult to find in 2011. However in the main, we will stick to class performers in order to try and find the 2016 victor.
This course is generally about the second shot, although the numerous doglegs require sound positioning of shots from the tee and shaping the ball is a key characteristic needed this week. The course has been described as a faders' paradise but the ability to shape the ball both ways will be required.
The fairways are tight and are bordered by rough which is composed of Kikuyu grass. The rough is supposedly of reasonable length which is a help but this is a tough strain of grass, generally found on South African courses and rarely encountered by PGA Tour professionals, and is extremely difficult to control the ball when playing out of. The grass makes for perfect fairway lies but the rough grabs and buries the ball and tends to tighten around the club during the swing, Finding this rough will make par saving difficult and birdies practically impossible.
The bentgrass/pro annua greens average 5,000 square foot and are smaller than at most PGA venues. There is a real premium on scrambling skills, given that greens will be frequently missed, given their size and because many approaches will have to be made from areas other than the fairway. They usually run fast at 12' on the stimpmeter, which will make them both less receptive and a real challenge once the putter is in a player's hand and with dry warm conditions expected, they should quicken up throughout the week. All of this points us against Rory McIlroy, who is making his debut and while he could excel from tee to green, he could easily throw it away on these difficult to read putting surfaces.
What will be required this week is accurate rather than powerful driving with an ability to shape the ball around the doglegs and set up a second shot from the best possible angle. The small difficult greens require excellent approach shots, generally with a medium iron, so the ability to hit Greens in Regulation (“GIR) and GIR from areas other than the fairway will be very important, which is backed up by the fact that eleven of the last fifteen winners have ranked in the Top 10 in GIR.
We have said in past previews that Par 4 performance is very important and James Hahn ranked 1st in this category last year, although scoring low on the Par 5s will be necessary, particularly registering -4 or better on the first hole, which usually ranks as the easiest on the course and averaged an extremely easy 4.29 last year.
In addition experience and prominent placings in this event in previous years are key characteristics as most recent winners have given a sign in the past that they were ready to step up and claim the prize by posting high finish in previous years.
Charl Schwartzel was our main pick last year, despite the fact that there were concerns about how he folded in the South Africa Open and his form coming into the event. He has been 3rd and 5th in 2013 & 2014, but he was below par last year, even with a normally acceptable 41st place finish. However this year he arrives in excellent form after a dominating win in the Tshwane Open, where he won by 8 shots and led the field in Driving Distance and GIR.
He fits the bill as a top class player, with a Green Jacket already tucked away in this closet and he is really suited to the configuration of this venue, while he has a distinct advantage over most of the field in that he is very familiar with the kikuyu strand of grass and has pointed to this fact as one of the reason he really enjoys playing in this event. His game looks in excellent shape at the moment and he is fresh after having an enforced break, which meant he skipped the Desert Swing events. He eanks highly in key categories on the Tour this year, given that he is 4th in GIR, 6th in Scrambling and 3rd in Bogey Avoidance, even if it is a small sample size. However possibly the key to this week is that he has an "eye coach" which seems to be greatly assisting his reading of greens, which was an achilles heel here in the past at crucial times and really cost him in the US Open at Merrion.
Everything looks in place for Schwartzel this week and if things click, he should prove to be very hard to beat. He would make appeal at a few points shorter than he is, but at 30/1 with Bet365, he is worth backing and also worth an interest at 6/1 in the Top Rest of the World Market.
1.75 points each way Charl Schwartzel at 30/1 with Bet365 (each way 5 places)
1 point each way Charl Schwartzel - Top Rest of World at 6/1 with Bet365 (each way 4 places)