Bombers, ball-strikers have equal chance at Riviera

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2016, 1:08 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba Watson, Jason Kokrak and Chez Reavie – which one of these players doesn’t belong?

If that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, it’s actually a testament to Riviera Country Club’s brilliance, if not the standard of play at this week’s Northern Trust Open.

If there’s no greater compliment for a golf course than an eclectic leaderboard, consider this week’s collection of contenders an unabashed endorsement of one of the PGA Tour’s most endearing layouts.

Watson, Kokrak and Reavie – Nos. 4, 9 and 116 on the PGA Tour this season in driving distance, respectively – will set out in Sunday’s final three-ball in what amounts to a mandate for more inclusiveness at the game’s highest levels.

Alhough distance is always an advantage, the final threesome of would-be champions may play the same game but they do so in vastly different ways.

“My advantage is that I can hit more fairways and plot my way around,” said Reavie, who led by as many as three strokes before slipping back late on Saturday. “They have a lot more firepower, so obviously I'm hitting 3-iron into [No.] 15 and Dustin [Johnson] is probably hitting like an 8-iron or something like that.”

For one rare week, however, the playing field is, if not even, then at least tilted ever so slightly in the plodders’ direction.

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It’s the brilliance of Riviera that it defies definition. Is it a bomber’s layout? A ball-striker’s ballpark?

Label-averse Watson didn’t particularly care for either characterization, figuring, “It's just a traditional old school golf course that's got a lot of history.”

It’s why, at 56 years old, Fred Couples plays the Northern Trust Open, and Justin Leonard counts this among the half dozen Tour stops he considers “must play.”

“I just love the golf course,” explained Leonard, who is tied for 14th place and is 206th in driving distance. “And it doesn't necessarily suit my game. When it's firm like this, my chances are better.”

The mitigating magic that makes Riviera so unique was on display midway through Saturday’s round when Johnson, No. 6 on Tour in driving distance this season, had to scramble for par at the 10th hole.

DJ’s par brought his score on the drivable par 4 to even par this week; while Reavie, who averages 23 yards less off the tee this season than Johnson, is 2 under at the 10th through three rounds after rolling in an eagle putt from just off the front of the green.

That the 10th played just 289 yards in Round 3 just reinforces the notion that distance may be king but royalty can also be found in more measured forms.

Reavie’s 20-foot eagle putt at the 10th hole, combined with a bogey for Johnson at the 11th, gave the diminutive veteran - he’s listed at 5-foot-9 in the Tour media guide but that seems ambitious - a three-stroke advantage.

Bogeys at Nos. 14 and 15 cost Reavie his advantage, but his play around the greens (he’s 14 for 19 in scrambling attempts this week) gave him confidence he could overcome those late miscues just as he’s overcome his relative distance deficit to his fellow contenders.

“So I have to play good golf, absolutely. But I've got to play good golf anywhere I'm at, too,” said Reavie, who finished with a 69 on Saturday and is one shot behind Watson. “It's a ball-striker's golf course, so even though you have shorter irons in, you still have to hit them in the right spot.”

It’s a lesson Rory McIlroy is learning this week. The world No. 3 has largely plodded his way around Riviera, where he is making his first start, and has quickly come to appreciate the design elements that make it so unique on Tour.

“Just the design of the golf course, it's not overly long but it's very tough and there's no rough. It's not like you hit it off line and you get penalized that much,” said McIlroy, who scrambled for par at the last hole on Day 3 for a share of fifth place, two shots back. “Just the design of the golf course is that good that any style of game can do well here.”

Maybe an even better example of Riviera’s refusal to be typecast as either a bomber’s course or a ball-striker’s layout can be found in Sunday’s penultimate group that includes Johnson, Kevin Chappell and K.J. Choi, Nos. 6, 41 and 197, respectively, in driving distance this year.

The title may end up going to one of the game’s hard-swinging set – with Watson, who won the Northern Trust Open two years ago, the easy favorite – but the best part about Riviera is it’s not a foregone conclusion.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.