(CBSLA/CBS Local) — The Genesis Invitational, previously the Genesis Open, tees off Thursday from Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California. The event, hosted by Tiger Woods, proves once again that fields can vary widely in the pre-major portion of the PGA Tour season. And this field might be the best we’ll see in a non-major event this year. Nine of the world’s top 10 players will make the trip to southern California, with new number one Rory McIlroy, the deposed Brooks Koepka and tournament host Woods among them.
Many of the big names fall outside the top 10. Phil Mickelson, a two-time event champion, returns to action, fresh off a third-place showing at Pebble Beach that elevated him to 55th in the world. A top-60 ranking, if he maintains it, qualifies him for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in June. (He’s publicly stated that he will turn down a special exemption.) It does not qualify him for the WGC-Mexico Championship in a couple weeks, however.
Bubba Watson checks in 10 spots ahead of Lefty in the rankings this week. He’s won this event’s championship three of the last six years and will certainly be taken seriously this week. “This course obviously suits his eye,” says CBS Sports golf analyst and PGA Tour veteran Trevor Immelman. “And he putts these greens well, which are notoriously difficult.”
Every winner from the last decade, save for two, will seek the leaderboard at Riviera come Thursday. J. B. Holmes took the title last year with a come-from-behind win on the weather-ravaged final day. His 14-under 270 was enough to edge out Justin Thomas by one stroke. Holmes and Thomas both return this week (in pleasant temperatures under mostly sunny skies), and the latter, ranked fourth in the world, has to be considered among the favorites. So far this year, Thomas has a win at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and a T3 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open a couple weeks ago.
Thomas will be paired with Woods for the third straight time at this event. The Big Cat, perched at eighth in the world rankings, has a spotty history at Riviera. His eight appearances there in the last two decades have yielded just two top-10 finishes, and those were in 2003 and 2004. He placed 15th last year and missed the cut the year before. A T9 at the Farmers Insurance Open a few weeks counts as his only 2020 appearance.
According to Immelman, who saw is Farmers showing, “I thought his swing looked very good. And his short game looked sharp. I see no reason at all why he’s not going to be in the picture come Sunday.”
Woods’ presence will certainly be felt as he seeks career (and record-setting) win number 83. Immelman recently noted the potential for excitement in this moment. “The fact that he’s going for 83, at a tournament that he now hosts, which is also the tournament where he made his PGA Tour debut in 1992 as a 16-year-old kid… when you wrap all of that together, and add the extra wrinkle that this is one of the few tournaments that he’s played a few times and never won, it makes a really very cool storyline. That would be quite something on Sunday if he’s coming down the stretch with a chance to break a record on Tour of Sam Snead’s that, quite frankly, I don’t think anybody thought would be broken.”
All the star power at the Genesis will face a smaller field overall. The switch to invitational status reduces the total number of players to 120. The bombers among them will have somewhat of an advantage. The Riviera, a par-71, stretches over 7,300 yards, which puts it on the longer end of the Tour spectrum. It certainly dwarfs any of Pebble Beach’s three courses, all among the Tour’s shortest. And while similarly iconic, it presents a somewhat different challenges.
“The golf course at the Riviera Country Club has always been one of the most popular on Tour,” as Immelman describes it. “Just an old-school classic golf course that the players really love playing. It’s been able to keep its teeth over the years, even with technology changes. And it’s presented perfectly.”
Players who open on the front-nine can go birdie hunting out of the gate. The first hole is a 495-yard par-5 that ranks among the easiest holes on the PGA Tour. The tee box presents a scenic view, which drops down to the fairway below. A drive to the far end of the fairway will leave ample chance to pick up a stroke; the hole yields birdies 73 percent of the time. Many will then give it back on the second hole, a 471-yard par-4 that is maybe the course’s most difficult.
The back-nine starts with a couple of scoring opportunities of its own. Big hitters can reach the green of the 302-yard, par-4 10th hole in one stroke, but keeping the ball on the narrow putting surface presents its own risk. Laying up remains a viable path for picking up a stroke on a hole that yields birdies 34 percent of the time. The 11th hole is the second of the course’s three par-5s and presents its own challenge in the form of a gorge (barranca) that crosses the fairway. Birdies can be had here as well.
Let’s look at the favorites.
Rory McIlroy (7-1)
McIlroy, through a recalculation, became the world’s top-ranked player this week. He finished T4 at Riviera last year and T3 at the Farmers a few weeks ago. McIlroy leads the PGA Tour in shots gained: tee-to-green. “It’s hard to find a more consistent player over the last couple of years,” says Immelman. “When you’re constantly there with a chance on the weekends, things start falling your way and you start racking up wins. That’s what I see out of Rory McIlroy right now. He’s absolutely in the prime of his career.”
Justin Thomas (15-2)
Thomas’s game is nicely suited for Riviera. He has three top-five finishes in his last five starts. Thomas is fourth on the Tour in shots gained: tee-to-green. “Justin Thomas has been playing well this season, says Immelman, “he’s won twice already and placed third here last season, so he likes the golf course.”
Jon Rahm (8-1)
Rahm is ranked third in the world and finished in the top 10 in each of his last four events. He checked in at T9 last year at the Genesis Open. Rahm ranks 11th on the PGA Tour in shots gained: tee-to-green.
The Genesis Invitational airs Saturday, February 15 (3:00 – 6:00 pm ET) and Sunday, February 16 (3:00 – 6:30 pm ET) on CBS.