Course/Fantasy Golf Preview: NTO

by: James Dalthorp Staff Writer
Congratulations to Brandt Snedeker on last week's win. Patience and decisive decision making are enjoyable to watch from him and the Tour is better for having him. What’s more impressive is how he can play so quickly when playing in the final groups on the past few Sundays during golf’s longest walks… in six hour rounds. Ironic isn’t it? He's not in the field this week, and he's already withdrawn from next week's Match Play to get his sore ribs some rest, but his play is a sign of great confidence heading into The Masters. 

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have both won this year despite baffling viewers with less than hall-of-fame moments: Tiger chunked his driver 111 yards at Abu Dhabi in January and Phil played the 18th hole at Pebble Beach in 15 shots over the final two rounds last week (while successfully slipping on rocks near the ocean wearing metal spikes)! 

This week the players head south to Los Angeles for the Northern Trust Open. Mickelson -- a two-time winner here and a loser in a playoff last year -- is the only of the “big three” in this week's Northern Trust Open field. It’s an interesting bunch: Fred Couples returns to the main Tour to grace the driving range with his storytelling, and per usual a group of international players circa 2000 have returned (including Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, K.J. Choi, Angel Cabrera, Jesper Parnevik and even Ernie Els). Els is playing his first PGA TOUR event of 2013. He finished T59 last year here and has a win and two top-10's here since 1999. He’s played three events on the European Tour so far this year with his best finish being his first start at the Volvo Champions (T18).

Trend of note: Americans have captured the Northern Trust title five of the last six years. 

The Course

Riviera Country Club is known for it’s kikuyu grass around the greens, which are native to the area. Often this makes chipping more difficult because of the way the club is snagged due to its “sticky” nature, and often leads to a “fluffy” result. The course will play almost 7,400 yards from all the way back. From playing the course, I found the par threes to be an important part of the overall score. Making sure you find the green on the 240-yard fourth hole is vital, as well as the sixth (pot bunker in the middle of the green) and the 16th (a small green surrounded completely by sand). Otherwise, Riviera is a treat to play for a seasoned veteran: ball striking is just as important as strategy. This aspect made it one of Ben Hogan’s favorites. Accuracy is rewarded.

Weather is expected to be better than most years. Typically rained out or exposed to random days of high winds or storms, this year it will just be a typical winter week in Los Angeles: sunny with some clouds, temperatures reaching for the low 70’s.

Players to Watch

Graeme McDowell. He’s been an absolute beast just an hour down the 101 freeway at Sherwood Country Club (similar conditions and grass) where he’s won Tiger's event two of the last three years, beating Tiger himself in a playoff in 2010. Says he loves the greens. His love for California greens is palpable; his US Open win at Pebble Beach in 2010 is another reason not to underestimate him on poa annua. Making his first start of the season along with Els and Luke Donald.

Peter Hanson. The NTO is regarded as one of the most difficult events in the past few years on Tour, so I look to the most recent challenging “worldwide” event for suggestion: The Abu Dhabi HSBC World Champions. Hanson finished T9 and as we know he has a knack for competing well in major championships.

James Hahn. Full of confidence after three special weeks as a rookie: 1) experienced a final group on Sunday (and a lead) last week at Pebble Beach, where he ended up in the top five and became a fan favorite, 2) had his first top-5 result with a T4 in the Humana, and 3) made Youtube fame with a Gangnam-style dance in the FBR Phoenix Open. In each event, the former Cal Golden Bear shot at least one round of -6 or better, including two 62's.

Keegan Bradley. T24 in the Phoenix Open (his last start) to go along with a T4 (Hyundai) and two other poor performances. He is one of the 20 players who made it to the Tour Championship last year who is in the field. Bradley notably lost in a playoff last year (Haas) after making a birdie putt on the 18th hole to get into the mix.

Pat Perez. Started the third round with the lead here last year and finished T13. This year he’s finished T9 at Sony, T21 at the Farmers Insurance Open, and T50 last week (to go along with a DQ and a missed cut). Rumors are that he’s “happier” on the golf course. 

Photo: USA Today Sports Images