Welcome to the FSB Golf Blog – a new, if experimental feature we aim to update fortnightly on the site, focussing on the biggest tournaments from either side of the pond. These previews will feature top betting and statistical analysis from our traders, coupled to background insight from our golfing editor of the week.
Genesis Open (Thurs 14th – Sun 17th February)
Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, L.A.
Where better to start a new endeavour than at one of the time-honoured classic courses on the PGA Tour? Riviera Country Club has been hosting the Los Angeles Open in its varied bumper stickers since 1926, so this year’s renewal of the Genesis Open draws on both history and proven form lines. Which is helpful for form students.
In golf, of course, numbers mean everything. Except when it comes to age. As Phil Mickelson eloquently proved on Monday morning when winning his fifth AT&T Pro-am at Pebble Beach at the ripe old age of 48. Lefty now returns to Riviera in rude health – his putting is as good as it’s ever been, while his swing speed remains as fast as it was in his prime, thanks to reapplication in the gym, allied to a freakishly flexible body. Mickelson has made nine of nine cuts here since 2007, alongside a brace of victories and as many second-place finishes. But the secret’s out.
So, let’s have a little look elsewhere in the betting lists in a heat so loaded with talent, it looks like they’re lining up for a U.S Open.
Course characteristics & key player attributes
Riviera, aka Hogan’s Alley after the legendary Ben Hogan’s four victories in the Forties, has evolved over time to cope with the demands of the modern game. Pushing 7,400 yards, it’s a brute of a par 71 from the championship tips which ideally demands length and accuracy.
However, the latter attribute has become something of a false flag in the modern era, seeing as this track generates some of the lowest-accuracy driving stats on Tour at 53%. Put succinctly, most people struggle off the tee here. The trick is to shape your ball and miss in the right places so that, even if you are coming in from thick rough or strategically-placed bunkers, you have the chance to control your ball into some tight target areas. Indeed, these greens ranked as the hardest to hit in regulation on the planet last year (GIR was at a paltry 53%, or 9.6 greens per round were found on average). The Tour slogan may remind us that, “these guys are good”. But they’re not accurate.
In short, then, if straight shooters are in short supply, we need length with good GIR stats. Four of the past five winners have been housed inside the top 10 in that key category. Or, alternatively, being a good scrambler can make up for the odd missed green. In fact, all of the last nine Riviera champions registered inside the top 20 for Scrambling (up-and-downs), with two of them leading the field in this domain during their respective winning weeks.
Notably, left-handers have taken this title seven times. However, when you consider that those wins were only achieved by Phil, Bubba Watson and a Mike Weir in his prime, it’s somewhat less interesting. A bit like saying Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale, and Diego Maradona only truly find their left feet on a 100×50-yard rectangle of green grass.
Taking all the above factors into consideration, big-hitting Bubba has to head the staking plan. Granted, the cat is well and truly out of the bag with this three-time and defending champion. But as we all know, Bubba is one of the most mercurial talents in the game, so the trick is recognising when best to catch him. All three of his top 10s here have been converted into victory, so when he’s good he’s very good. He placed inside the top five at Scottsdale a fortnight back where he topped the charts for Strokes Gained tee-to-green, so he’s clearly striping it and is coming to the boil nicely. In a field of more fancied, fashionable runners, the 20-1 on him joining Hogan on Riviera’s rollcall of fame makes plenty of appeal.
Scrolling down the lists, also take a flyer on Jason Kokrak at around 80-1 for the win – and don’t forget the place markets, too. If he goes at it full bore, JK is one of the longest bombers around, and has developed a growing affinity (20th-22nd-2nd in the past three years) for a course which takes some knowing. Just ask Bubba, who played here seven times before recoding his first top 10. Kokrak is toweringly talented but super streaky, and is still learning to fuse and manage his abilities on the circuit. However, he’s been showing glimpses of top-notch golf in recent weeks and three successive top 20s certainly says he’s trending in the right direction. The par fives at Riviera rank amongst the shortest around, and Kokrak (and Watson for that matter) can bring them to their knees. Kokrak is also first off on Thursday morning, so should benefit from the best conditions and purest greens in round one.
Others to note:
Dustin Johnson 8-1
DJ is tempting, even at 8-1, such is his current and course form. Johnson won here two years ago and was as short as a 4-1 shot 12 months back. Considering he’s secured a win, two seconds, a third and two fourths in the last nine years, 8-1 looks an overreaction to jetlag, Pebble’s bumpy greens and a judgmental past week with his in-laws. Riviera will feel like a welcome retreat by comparison.
Charles Howell 66-1
This Augusta resident has already booked a belated return ticket to the Masters in April, and is enjoying something of a renaissance at 39 years of age. Whether Howell can deliver on his immense early promise is another matter, but he reserves his best for Riviera (beating Mickelson in a play-off in 2007) and has taken some time off to specifically tune up for one of his favourite weeks of the year.
Lay of the Week:
We’ll be taking on Tiger Woods this week in whatever tournament matches, three-balls and two-balls we can get our filthy paws on. Long story short: he’s still rusty, making just his second start of 2019, and has struggled at Riviera in the past. In fact, this is the only PGA Tour venue which Tiger has played more than four times in pro career without posting a victory. Woods missed the cut last year and is only dutybound to return because his company, TGR Live, is running an event which contributes to his foundation. Tiger, a local lad, made his PGA Tour debut here way back in 1992 but his dogged return to the battlefield should surely end in more disappointment at the conclusion of another West Coast Swing. Bigger battles lie ahead for the top cat still chasing down Jack Nicklaus’ record haul of 18 majors.