Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2013

Riviera Gives PGA Pros All They Can Handle

With the combination of incredible skill and technologically advanced equipment, PGA Tour players turn many of golf’s weekly tournaments into little more than putting contests. At those events par is an afterthought as the pros bomb drives more than 300 yards, leaving them with just short iron approaches to lengthy par fours. Most in the field can reach the par fives in two shots. Through the first six weeks of this season the average winning score was twenty-one under par. But every once in a while the touring pros find themselves at a stop where the course and the conditions conspire to remind them that golf is not an easy game. Such was the case this week in Pacific Palisades.

Riviera Country Club opened in 1926, its golf course the most famous design of architect George C. Thomas, Jr. Over the decades the club has counted a lengthy list of Hollywood nobility among its members. Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck and Walt Disney all belonged to Riviera, as does Adam Sandler today. The golf course winds its way through towering eucalyptus trees, mixing relatively easy holes with surpassingly hard ones, with dramatic elevation changes and many uneven lies. There are several risk-reward holes, most notably the short par-4 10th. There a golfer can play safe by laying up in the fairway with an iron off the tee, or pull driver out of the bag and attempt to drive the green. If he does so he is putting for eagle; but if his shot runs off the elevated green into any of the surrounding depressions, double bogey suddenly comes into play.

The club has hosted four majors and, for most years since it began, the PGA Tour event originally called the Los Angeles Open, now named for its lead sponsor, Northern Trust Corporation. Nicknamed “Hogan’s Alley” after Bantam Ben won two L.A. Opens and the U.S. Open on the course within a span of sixteen months in 1947 and 1948, Riviera had a bit of a U.S. Open feel at this year’s Northern Trust Open. An unusually dry winter in southern California left the fairways and greens rock hard. That meant tee shots were bounding down the fairways, with one 321 yard drive reaching that distance thanks to 99 yards of roll. But it also meant that approach shots hitting greens looked like they were landing on concrete; bouncing high in the air before running off the putting surface. That was the case for shots from good lies. Players who had the misfortune to find themselves in the gnarly kikuyu grass rough had even less chance of having their approach shots hold the green. Once on the putting surfaces the pros faced the additional challenge of putting on greens seeded with poa annua; a grass variety that grows unevenly, causing putts to roll offline.

Bill Haas was at twelve under par and held a three shot lead at the start of Sunday’s final round. There were plenty of good reasons to think that the 30-year old was on his way to his fifth PGA Tour victory. Haas was the defending champion, having won the 2012 event in a playoff over Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. He also won the prestigious Tour Championship in 2011, a victory that was highlighted by a par-saving chip from a water hazard on the next to last hole. Haas was also playing extremely well on the tough Riviera layout, having gone through both the second and third rounds without a single bogey. His 64 on Saturday was the lowest round of the tournament.

While he couldn’t know it as he teed off, had he simply played the final 18 in even par Haas would have won the tournament. But playing with the lead can be more stressful than coming from behind. Chasing players have nothing to lose, while leaders are constantly looking over their shoulders. His bogey-free streak ended on the second hole; and Haas then played the middle part of his round, from the 7th through the 13th in five over par to fall out of the lead.

Haas made the turn still clinging to a one-shot lead at eleven under. Right behind him was a quintet of golfers. That group included defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson. But after getting to ten under with a birdie on the 9th Simpson was forced to settle for a string of pars on the back. A poor wedge after a layup off the tee on the 10th left him with a lengthy two putt. He came up short in two on the reachable par-5 11th, and then missed a ten foot birdie bid. He was forced to scramble to save pars on the 13th and 14th before finally making bogey on the 15th hole to join Haas in falling back.

Also at ten under as the final groups turned for home was Hunter Mahan. The 30-year old has won five times on Tour, including twice last season. He’s played in three Presidents Cup matches and on one Ryder Cup team. Playing ahead of the other contenders, Mahan was on the par-5 11th hole in two. From there a two-putt birdie moved him into a tie for the lead. But he immediately gave that stroke back with a bogey on the 12th. Mahan again tied for the lead with a lengthy birdie putt on the par-3 14th. But instead of going on to post a score that the players following him would have to match Mahan crumbled down the stretch, making three bogeys to finish at minus-8.

Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, was also in the hunt. But while he joined the throng at ten under with a birdie on the 10th, Schwartzel repeatedly missed makeable birdie opportunities over the rest of the back nine. He was on the front edge of the 17th green in two, but he ran his lengthy eagle putt six feet past the hole. When his birdie effort coming back also missed Schwartzel’s chances went the way of all of the other well-known players.

Instead under bright sunshine in the hills above the Pacific Ocean it was the two least likely candidates who wound up going to a playoff to decide this year’s Northern Trust Open. Charlie Beljan’s sole Tour victory came at last year’s season-ending tournament at Disney World. He won despite receiving repeated medical attention during the second round as he suffered from a panic attack. There was no anxiety Sunday when Beljan rolled in an eighteen foot birdie putt on the final hole to tie for the lead.

The man he tied was 30-year old John Merrick, who joined the Tour in 2007. In 169 events prior to this week Merrick had never won. But he was the first to catch the fading Haas with a birdie on the 10th hole. From there he held his nerve down the stretch even as his more accomplished competitors were losing theirs. A twenty-five foot putt to save par at the 14th and an outstanding chip from off the green to do the same at the 15th kept Merrick atop the leader board. One more up and down at the last sent him into the sudden death playoff.

The second extra hole was the par-4 10th. Merrick laid up off the tee and pitched safely on for a certain par. Beljan took the risk of going for the green, but wasn’t rewarded when his drive flew well left. Forced to pitch away from the flag, Beljan three-putted for bogey, making John Merrick a first-time winner. Though in truth, as happens too seldom on the PGA Tour, this week it was the golf course that won.

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