Riviera has been known as “Hogan’s Alley” for more than a half-century after Ben Hogan turned this fabled course along Sunset Boulevard into his personal playground. He won the Los Angeles Open in consecutive years, and won twice in one season in 1948 when he added a U.S. Open victory.
But no one – not Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson or Fred Couples – has ever won at Riviera three straight years. That’s what Phil Mickelson will set out to do when the Northern Trust Open begins Thursday.
“I don’t have a good explanation for it,” Mickelson said.
And to think he was only a good chip away from already having won three straight years. Mickelson only needed a par on the 18th hole to win at Riviera in 2007 until he hit a chip that came out flat and missed an 18-foot putt. Charles Howell beat him in a playoff.
Mickelson won the next two years, comfortably in 2008 and with a strong finish last year to beat Steve Stricker.
Strangely enough, Mickelson used to avoid this place earlier in his career because he wasn’t getting very good results. Now, he can’t wait to get to Riviera.
The only question is what kind of game he brings.
Mickelson, who ended last year with victories in the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions in Shanghai, couldn’t wait to get started this year. Perhaps he was too excited. He felt nerves of anticipation, lost some of his timing and never seriously threatened at Torrey Pines, where he finished 19th.
He had talked about his driving going from a liability to a weapon, then walked to the tee for his pro-am and hit his tee shot on the next fairway, offering a sheepish grin. His tee shots never improved during the week, and one got stuck in a tree.
As he played the pro-am late Wednesday afternoon at Riviera, Mickelson offered one reason.
After the tournament, he pulled the head of his driver off the shaft and noticed the inside of the shaft had been cracked so badly that it was about five swings away from shattering.
Then again, after sharing that story and how he has it fixed, he sent a tee shot on the third hole into the left rough.
Even so, Mickelson is excited to get started this week, hopeful that the focus returns to his golf.
The world’s No. 2 player was in the news quite a bit last week, not over his driver but his wedge. He was among five players who have used the Ping Eye2 wedge with square grooves – which don’t conform to the new rules but are approved to play because of a settlement from two decades ago.
That prompted Scott McCarron to say it was “cheating,” and Mickelson fired back by saying he had been “publicly slandered.” Mickelson might have put the controversy to rest – at least for now – by saying he had made his point against the USGA and accepted an apology from McCarron.
The next challenge comes from Riviera, which is in pristine condition, and from the strongest field on the PGA Tour so far this year.
Stricker, who finished one shot behind last year, is back for another try, while among those making their season debut are Padraig Harrington and Anthony Kim.
The Irishman was not much of a threat last year at Riviera, or hardly any tournament. He spent the better half of the year trying to find the secret to his mechanics at impact and he wasn’t satisfied until July. By then, he was so far behind that he wound up not winning a tournament anywhere in the world.
Always tinkering, Harrington spent his offseason making more adjustments. Only now, there’s a big difference.
“Last year I came out at this stage and I wasn’t happy with the changes and what they resulted in, and I kept working on it,” Harrington said. “This year, I’m not in that mindset. I’m happy with what I’ve done, and I’m going to just play with that. It’s finished at the moment, and I’m ready to go play golf, which is what I didn’t do last year.”
The field isn’t quite as strong as a year ago, mainly because of the date change. For years, the Northern Trust Open was the final event of the West Coast Swing before the Match Play Championship, and it attracted several European Tour members who wanted to get acclimated to the time change before Match Play.
Partly because of the Winter Olympics, Riviera is being played two weeks before Match Play, so it is missing players such as Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy.
The newest face this year is the tournament director – Los Angeles Lakers great Jerry West, an icon in LA who agreed to run the tournament with hopes of boosting its charity dollars.
One other change: It is being televised by NBC Sports, because CBS Sports will show the Match Play during the Olympics. NBC executive producer Tommy Roy has erected a tower left of the 10th fairway to capture tee shots on what many consider to be the best short par 4 in golf.
Mickelson can only hope one thing stays the same: His name on the trophy.