GENESIS INVITATIONAL: The golf season kicks into high gear this week at historic Riviera Country Club, where 9 of the world’s top-10 players will be in attendance for this year’s edition of the tournament now known as the Genesis Invitational, which was first staged some 94 years ago and is still one of the jewels of the PGA Tour schedule.
As is the case with most great tournaments, the star of the show here is the golf course– Riviera has stood the test of time and is one of those rare gems that draws near-universal praise from the players. A par-71 that measures just over 7,300 yards, it’s not terribly long, but big hitters have had lots of success in this event over the past few years, most notably Bubba Watson, who has won this tournament three times in the past six stagings. Defending champion J.B Holmes is a definite bomber, as are Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, two guys who have also won here in the past decade. But, as is the case with most great courses, Riviera lends itself to many different styles of play, and some shorter and lesser-known players have had success here as well, with names like James Hahn, Aaron Baddeley, and Steve Stricker all gracing the trophy since 2010.
Accuracy is key at Riviera– the fairways are tough to find, and the kikuyu rough that lines the course is difficult and unpredictable. Even if you’re in the fairway with a short iron in your hand, holding the small, firm, knobby greens is a real challenge, making scrambling a key stat this week. The greens themselves are a bent/poa mix, and they’re usually pretty slick, though three-putt avoidance isn’t generally an issue on account of their size. All in all, Riviera is a formidable test, and the scoring average in this event has been over-par in 12 of the past 13 years.
As mentioned, the field is absolutely stacked this week, so the top of the market is littered with big names. And though this tournament has definitely produced its share of marquee winners, it’s produced some longshots as well, so we shouldn’t be afraid to take a chance on one of the many quality players who are generously priced on account of the field strength. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm (14.0)- Rahm has been on an otherworldly hot streak in recent months, logging top-15s in 15 of his last 16 worldwide starts and going on a 2-10-2-9 run this year on the PGA Tour. The raw numbers are incredible, as you would imagine– a combined 50-under in his last 16 competitive rounds; 5th on Tour in Total Strokes Gained and top-35 in every major ball-striking stat; 6th in sand save percentage, and the one that should scare everyone, 21st in Strokes Gained Putting. If Rahm continues putting this way, he will likely catch Rory McIlroy atop the world rankings by summer and will be a threat to win multiple majors. There’s absolutely no reason to expect him to slow down this week, given his great record in Southern California and on the West Coast generally. And as you would expect from someone with his ball-striking chops, he seemed to enjoy Riviera in his debut appearance last year, finishing 9th and shooting par-or-better all four rounds. All things considered, 14.0 is plenty fat enough for Rahm this week.
Marc Leishman (50.0)- After earning a couple of weeks off with his victory at the Farmers, where he closed with a Sunday 65 at the treacherous Torrey Pines South to hold off Jon Rahm by a single shot, Leishman is back in action this week and warrants serious consideration at nearly 50/1. After all, it’s not like his win was totally out of the blue– he finished top-30 in his only other start of 2020, the Sony Open, and was on a good run to close out 2019, with top-25 finishes in 5 of his final 8 starts of the season and a T3 in September’s Safeway Open, which technically counts for this season as part of the wraparound schedule. Point is, he’s been playing really well for several months, he’s coming off one of the best weeks of his career, and he’s proven that he can succeed at Riviera, finishing 4th in this event last year and 5th in 2016. The big Aussie might be the best value on the board this week.
Kevin Na (100.0)- A California native, Na has always played his best golf on the West Coast, and this event in particular has been a gold mine for him throughout his career, as he’s found the top-10 four times in the past decade, with recent highlights including a runner-up in 2018 and a T4 in 2017. Given his precision with the irons, his comfort at Riviera shouldn’t be a surprise, but what is a surprise, to me anyway, is that he can be had at a price like 100.0. I mean, it’s not like he’s been struggling lately– he finished 14th at Pebble last week despite an opening-round 75, meaning he played some really solid golf over the final three days, and he finished 17th at The American Express last month, breaking 70 in all four rounds. I know the field is full of big names this week, but an in-form Na is always a threat at Riviera, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if he’s on the first page of the leaderboard come Sunday. If you’re looking for a live longshot, this is your guy.