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Stat Attack!: Northern Trust Open preview

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Riviera Country Club, host course of the Northern Trust Open for all but two years since 1973, is one of the quirkiest venues on the PGA Tour. The sixth hole has a two-tiered green with a bunker in the middle, No. 10 is a drivable par-4, and No. 8 sports two fairways. There are plenty of doglegs, tight fairways, small well-guarded greens and few certain birdie opportunities. It has been well-documented that in 2013 Riviera allowed the fewest number of fairways hit since the tour began keeping records more than 20 years ago (51.82 percent), and its percentage of greens hit (58.01 percent) was the third-lowest on tour last year. What kind of player fares well on such a diabolical venue?

Would you believe three-time tour winner in 2013-14 Jimmy Walker? The AT&T Pebble Beach champion calls Riviera one of his favorite courses, and he finished T16 in L.A. a year ago after finishing T-4 in 2011 and 2012. Never one to worry about hitting fairways - he was last in the field in driving accuracy when he won the Frys.com Open to begin his amazing run last fall - Walker’s is one of the better records at Riviera. Since 2006 he has shot only one round worse than 72 and 13 of his last 24 rounds have been under par.


Jimmy Walker at the Northern Trust Open

 Year Place Scores To Par Money
 2013 T-16 70-70-71-69—280 -4 $99,000
 2012 T-4 72-66-72-69—279 -5

259,875

 2011 T-4 68-71-69-68—276 -8 268,666
 2010 T-37 71-72-71-67—281 -3 26,880
 2009 70 69-70-70-77—286 +2 12,600
 2006 T-39 71-71-72-69—283 -1 20,400
 2005 MC 73-73—146 +4  

But like Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch, there are other players who are at home on the par-71 venue. Four players in this year’s field - including Walker - have finished in the top-five at the Northern Trust Open two times in the last five years.

The top-five club

 Player 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
 Bill Haas T-3 Won T-12 MC MC
 Dustin Johnson MC T-4 MC T-3 T-10
 Andres Romero T-71 MC T-55 T-5 T-3
 Jimmy Walker T-16 T-4 T-4 T-37 70

 

Three players have appeared eight or more times at the Northern Trust Open and have never missed the cut.

The weekend club

 Player

Cuts made

Top-10s Years

Best finish

 K.J. Choi 13 4 2001-13 T-3, 2009
 Stewart Cink 13 1 1997-13 T-5, 2000
 Matt Kuchar 8 0 2002-13 T-14, 2008

Five players who have won this event in the last 10 years are in the field. But unlike Haas, not all of them have done much beyond their victory

The winner’s club

 Player Year of win

Next best finish since 2004

Last year
 John Merrick 2013 T-54, 2010  
 Bill Haas 2012 T-3, 2013 T-3
 Aaron Baddeley 2011 T-7, 2005 MC
 Charles Howell III 2007 T-47, 2005 MC
 Mike Weir 2004 T-22, 2007 MC

The up-and-down nature of the recent winners make picking a champion this week dicey. If you had John Merrick a year ago after he hadn’t finished better than T-54 in any previous start at Riviera, congratulations. Also, I don’t believe you. Merrick took advantage of what was given him a year ago. He was T-23 in the field in greens in regulation by sticking his approach shots (T-11 in proximity to hole), and he got up and down when he missed the green (19th in scrambling). It’s a formula for victory on any course, but especially Riviera, where the five best finishers in 2013 were in the top 25 in the field in GIR, scrambling and strokes gained/putting.

Northern Trust Open leaders stats in 2013

 Player GIR percentage Proximity to hole Scrambling Strokes gained/putting
 John
 Merrick
63.89 (T-23) 33 feet, 9 in. (11) 65.38 (19) +1.157 (15)
 Charlie
 Beljan
72.22 (1) 33 feet, 1 in. (8) 70.00 (12) +1.657 (9)
 Freddie
 Jacobson
70.83 (T-3) 30 feet, 8 in. (2) 71.43 (T-8) +1.198 (14)
 Bill Haas 68.06 (T-10) 40 feet, 5 in. (T-61) 65.22 (20) +1.799 (4)
 Charl
 Schwartzel
69.44 (T-6) 36 feet, 2 in. (T-31) 77.27 (5)

+1.712 (6)


Webb Simpson has only played the Northern Trust Open twice, but he too, has a record to admire. He was T-15 in 2010 and T-6 a year ago and according to the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open media guide, he is the all-time scoring leader at Riviera, averaging 69.00 in his eight rounds there. Seven other players in the top-20 in all-time scoring at the tournament are in the field this week.

Active scoring average leaders at Riviera

 Player Scoring avg./rank Rounds
 Webb Simpson 69.00/1 8
  J.B. Holmes 69.69/4 26
 Fred Couples 69.87/6 115
 Ernie Els 70.06/11 34
 K.J. Choi 70.08/14 50
 Robert Allenby 70.14/16 50
 Dustin Johnson 70.20.18 20
 Bill Haas 70.25.19 29

During this wrap-around season it’s easy to forget that Simpson’s 2013-14 victory came in the fall at Las Vegas. Still he’s had a good Pacific swing. Like Walker, who also won in the fall, Simpson has been one of the tour’s top players since January. In fact, there are 14 players with three or more top-25 finishes on Tour during the past six weeks, and nine of them are playing the Northern Trust Open.

West Coast warriors

 Player

Starts

Top-10s Top-25s Best
 Pat Perez 5 3 4

T2-Farmers, T7-Pebble, T8-Sony, 11-Phoenix

 Harris
 English           
4 2 3 4-Sony, 9-Phoenix, T11-Hyundai
 Jimmy Walker 4 2 3 1-Sony, 1-Pebble, T21-Hyundai
 Jordan Spieth 4 2 3 2-Hyundai, T4-Pebble, T19-Farmers
 Kevin Na 4 2 3 T4-Pebble, T8-Sony, T19-Phoenix
 Webb Simpson 3 2 3 T3-Hyundai, 10-Phoenix, T23-Humana
 Will MacKenzie 4 1 3

T7-Farmers, T13-Humana, T13-Pebble

 Jason Kokrak 4 0 3 T15-Phoenix, T19-Pebble, T20-Sony
 Martin Laird 4 0 3 T19-Phoenix, 20-Hyundai,
T25-Humana

Perez has been one of the most consistent players on tour in 2014, and if you’re thinking about picking him in a fantasy league this week, he does have some success at the Northern Trust. Making his 13th start, he has made 10 cuts with a solo eighth in 2007 as his best showing.

Adding sparkle to the Northern Trust is the host of European Tour golfers or dual-tour golfers who have made their way to America and are playing this week as a run-up to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Some have played well in foreign lands this winter, some not so well, and some not at all. But their presence gives the Northern Trust Open 26 of the top 50 players on the World Ranking. With a projected strength of field of 434 points, it is the best-rated tournament in 2014 according to the standards set by the World Ranking.

International stars at the Northern Trust Open

 Player Rank Recent results
 Ian Poulter 14

It’s his third start in the U.S. in four weeks, but with little success (T-47 Farmers, MC Phoenix).

 Charl
 Schwartzel      
18

He won the Alfred Dunhill title in December, but has been cold since the calendar switched. T59 last week in Joburg.

 Victor
 Dubuisson
29

Fifth at the Volvo Champions in January, he was T-13 last week at Pebble Beach.

 Lee
 Westwood
33

Like Poulter, he’s stayed away from the Euro Tour in 2014. Also like Poulter, he’s struggled in America (MC at Pebble).

 Louis
 Oosthuizen 
34

He won the Volvo Golf Champions the second week of January, but hasn’t played since.

 Ernie Els 35

He hasn’t played the PGA Tour since the HSBC Champions, and missed the cut in his most recent start in Dubai.

 G. F’dez-
 Castano
38

Two MC’s in the U.S. (Farmers, Phoenix) after two top-20s to end 2013 in South Africa

 Joost Luiten 41

He’s been third, sixth and T-23 in three Euro events since the calendar turned. 

 Francesco
 Molinari
45

A T-13 two weeks ago in Dubai was his only world-wide start in 2014.


One final note: Fred Couples is playing his 32nd Northern Trust Open this week. He has made 28 cuts and won in 1990 and 1992. He was second in 1993, 1994 and 1996 and has 14 top-10s. More recently, he was T-7 in 2011 and has made the cut in 11 of 13 PGA Tour starts in the last three years.

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