A major within a major is how I generally look at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country club.
The strongest field of the season so far tees it up at an event where the best players generally emerge down the stretch come Sunday. Bubba Watson - 13.00 - is the typical example - shooting a weekend 64-64 to win by two in 2014 on a very testing track.
Second to Bubba last year was Dustin Johnson who has been outspoken about his liking for the course, while the PGA Tour's form horse Jimmy Walker - 19.00 - makes no secret that it's his favourite all season.
Sergio Garcia is another to have given Riviera CC the thumbs up in the past. There's a general big hitter theme this week which I'll get to a little later but Dustin Johnson has returned to top form already after a six month hiatus and he's joint favourite with Bubba and Jordan Spieth at 13.00.
The Course - Riviera CC
Playing circa 7,350 yards to a par of 71, the challenges at Riviera remind me of Augusta. Tall trees frame the fairways but it's possible to get away with errant shots as Bubba did numerous times in 2014. Augusta specialist Phil Mickelson is also a multiple Riviera Champion. William McGirt talked last year about how the course was playing fast and fiery and that if it didn't he'd have been in big trouble due to lack of length. Basically the rough is generally down, also similar to Augusta - although Kikuyu - and Riviera is a big hitters course.
Francesco Molinari - 81.00 - tweeted pictures last year and there wasn't really any rough to speak of just off the fairways, but up and around the greens the Kikuyu can be sticky, making little chip shots hard, and we saw a few duffs on screen last year (lucky Tiger's not playing!). The theme around here is one of players being left with long iron approaches into average sized greens, all protected by bunkers. This, along with said fast and fiery conditions, means pins are hard to access and three putt territory plus lag putting will be a feature. Those long off the tee and equipped with the high towering approach shot will have a huge advantage in terms of proximity to the hole and these are the type of players I'm targeting.
Three from the pack
Step up Harris English - 41.00 or 9.00 - who fits the Riviera Profile to a tee. A self confessed lover of tree lined tracks, not many hit the ball higher than Harris with the irons. He used this to his advantage at a fiery Torrey Pines en route to a playoff loss. Harris ranks 23rd in ball striking and 11th in scoring average and he's showing progressive 51-10 form in two starts at Riviera. English went through some swing alterations last year but looks set to bag his next victory very soon.
Bill Haas - 34.00 or 8.00 - is a Riviera course specialist with a recent form line of 23 - 3 - 1 - 12 there, and it's hardly a surprise given his tee to green supremacy. Haas' wife has just had their second child but Bill managed to squeeze in yet another PGA Tour victory in the process at Humana! The American has become a much more relaxed and confident player since he became a father and he now looks like he's going to get the job done when in contention. He will be eyeing the majors and biggest events this year. Haas ranked 36th in total driving and 15th in greens in reg in 2014. Interestingly he was also 1st in sand saves which won't hurt should he miss the greens around Riviera.
JB Holmes is also included in the staking plan this week but the third spot here goes to another course specialist in Keegan Bradley - 51.00 or 11.00. Total driving - check, high ball flight - check. Putting was the third attribute on the checklist but the jury is still out there since he moved to the shorter putter. I like his game so much for Riviera from tee to green though so he's nearly always a pick here for me. Keegan missed out in the playoff to Haas in 2012 and posted top 20s in the two renewals since. Keegan is once again ranking in the top 20 of the total driving stat and despite his flat stick change he's still holed 146/163 putts under 10' in 2015. He's simmering form wise with a T17 in Phoenix his best but a return to a course where he thrives could kick start his season.
I'm going to stick with my high trajectory and bombing theme here and Tony Finau - 100.0 or 19.00 - a big one to watch in 2015 may just be well suited to Riviera. Finau has also been simmering this year with a host of top 10 and top 25 finishes and lies 4th in total driving (2nd in club head speed). He hasn't played Riviera competitively yet so it's just a theory I have that it may suit but at triple figures he's worth a shot here in my opinion.