Riviera presenting a major challenge

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LOS ANGELES – Here’s one dirty little secret of the organizations which hold major championships: They don’t simply bring ‘em to the best courses.

This notion may stretch the idealism of neophyte observers who believe turf and landscape alone are the determining factors, but it shouldn’t. While governing bodies won’t bring a major to an undeserving track, many are quickly crossed off the list for logistical reasons. After all, lush fairways and tricky greens can be created anywhere; only certain venues, though, are spacious enough for luxury corporate suites, gargantuan merchandise tents and overflow parking lots.

All of which leads us to venerable Riviera Country Club, host of three majors but none in the last two decades and none scheduled in the near future. Not that it’s an impossibility. Look, if the USGA can bring a U.S. Open to Merion Golf Club, as it did two years ago, then we shouldn’t write off any course.

But just in case the powers that be don’t see fit to bring a major back to Riviera, for logistical or political or philosophical reasons, that’s fine, too.

The course is just going to go ahead and host its own major this week anyway.

Through two rounds of the Northern Trust Open, conditions are firm enough, scoring is high enough and competitors are muttering to themselves enough to make this look vaguely familiar as one of the big four.

“It's getting that way, yeah,” Retief Goosen agreed. “The rough is thick in places. Yeah, the greens are definitely becoming U.S. Open greens. They are getting firmer and quicker. Some of these holes, if you get away with a par, it's a good score.”

He would know. Though it’s been 11 years since his second of two U.S. Open victories, Goosen has always played his best golf on difficult setups – which also explains his overnight lead entering the weekend.


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But even that news – his first 36-hole lead in a half-decade – underscores the greater theme so far. After scores of 66-70, he finds himself atop the leaderboard at just 6-under.

That’s the highest leading score in relation to par this season by three strokes.

The numbers illustrating Riviera’s difficulty don’t end there, either. The 3-over cut is the highest at a tournament since last year’s Quicken Loan National. And it’s the highest at this course in three years. By comparison, the cut at Pebble Beach last week was 10 strokes better.

“You see the golf course like this and you realize it could definitely have a U.S. Open here,” surmised Ryan Moore, who at 5-under is just a stroke off the lead. “I mean, you just can’t get next to a hole. There were maybe five or six chances today of having something inside 10 feet, unless you get lucky.”

For those players who haven’t walked through the cavernous clubhouse and noted the many forms of memorabilia celebrating those long-ago majors, here’s the annotated history: In 1948, Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open here; in 1983, Hal Sutton won the PGA Championship here; and in 1995, Steve Elkington also won the PGA.

Justin Thomas was only 2 years old during the last leg of that trio, but that doesn’t mean he fails to understand how fierce this course can be.

“I've only played one major but from my experience and from what I've heard from others, this is very U.S. Open‑like,” said Thomas, also a single shot off the pace. “It's very firm and being in the fairway is such a huge premium, and all the spin you can get on it is really important. There are good pins and the greens are small and severe, so you need to be precise with what you're doing with your ball.”

Like at most major championships, the leaderboard entering Saturday’s round might not resemble the one which starts the day on Sunday. With contenders so tightly packed – 25 are within five strokes of the lead – and the course firming up each afternoon, don’t be surprised if a few players post scores early and watch everyone back up later in the day.

For evidence we only have to look back to last year’s edition of this event, when Bubba Watson made the cut on the number, then posted weekend scores of 64-64 to win.

“It’s nice when you can shoot 2 or 3 under and move up the leaderboard,” Moore said. “There’s something kind of nice about that. But at the same time, you know how difficult it is and it’s very easy to shoot 4 or 5 over on this golf course right now and not hit bad golf shots.”

That’s what will be facing players in the final two rounds. There’s a very fine line here at Riviera between success and failure.

But hey, it’s not just unique to this tournament. We can say that about every major.