Northern Trust Open
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Northern Trust Open Preview
We saw more missed putts from Larry The Cable Guy on Saturday’s telecast than total combined shots from every player not named Phil Mickelson. It was brutal. It’s almost like the horrific TV coverage of Pebble Beach is the tax we have to pay for the Northern Trust Open. Pebble is where we get to see celebrities “play”, Riviera CC is where they actually play.
Generally, the Northern Trust Open is ones of the year’s better events just because of the course. Riviera rules. It’s sneaky long (7,349 yards/Par 71), has a slew of memorable holes, and is far more difficult than you’d expect. If you transported the weak field from the Greenbrier and let them play Riviera, it’d still be one of the most watchable tournaments of the season. Fortunately, we don’t need to imagine how great the NTO would be with the game’s elite in attendance. They’re here: Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Jimmy Walker, JB Holmes,, Adam Scott, Paul Casey, Bill Haas, and Matt Kuchar are in. Just those names would be enough, but tack on Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Serigo Garcia, Bernd Wiesberger, and Andy Sullivan all making their 2016 US debuts, and baby, you got a stew going.
In case you’re bad at the internets, here’s how those international players have fared overseas in 2016:
Rory McIlroy: T3/T6
Sergio Garcia: T7
Andy Sullivan: MC/T22/T2
Charl Schwartzel: 1st
Bernd Wiesberger: T26/T13/T16
Additionally, the Top 50 in the World Rankings after the Northern Trust Open automatically qualify for the WGC-Cadillac Championship next month at Trump National Doral. Everyone else is a LOSER.
Northern Trust Open Key Stats
Consistently one of the most difficult layouts on TOUR, Riviera’s sneaky length was magnified by damp conditions in 2015. Playing as a Par 71, 7,322 yards doesn’t initially appear too daunting from the tee box, but when you learn there’s a Par 5 that’s just over 500 yards and a Par 4 a shade past 300, the rest of the course gets a lot longer, very quickly. It’s like when the forecast says it’s 32 degrees, but it feels like 12. When you add wetness, and the ball doesn’t roll anymore, the six Par 4s (of 11) which play over 450 yards, feel more like 500+. Hopefully, that won’t be the case again this year; weather “professionals” are calling for ideal conditions, bringing all types of players into the mix. Length is always an advantage, especially when it’s fused with ball striking and scrambling, but a combination of accuracy and long-iron play has also proven to be an effective formula for success over the years.
Scoring is going to come at a premium, that’s why Par 4 efficiency from 450-500 yards is key, but, after glancing at last year’s scorecard, it’s worth noting not a single Par 4 played in the red for the week. Not even the incredibly short Par 4 10th – 315 yards. I’ve long wondered, sometimes out loud, much to the disdain of those around me, why golf analytics aren’t a thing. I understand why, in a sport that leans more on the psychological side than any other, there would be resistance, but there was a tremendous study conducted about hole No. 10 assessing the outcomes of attacking the hole. Basically, a player’s approach on the tee box should be dictated by the pin placement. When the pin is at the front, go for the green; when it’s at the back, lay up and hit a wedge. Now, there could be a lot of hole-by-hole analytical work going on behind the scenes that I just don’t know about, but it would seem just a few tidbits like this during an event could be worth a stroke or two. Which could be a difference maker. I’m not suggesting players abandon their instincts or attempt shot shapes that they have no confidence in, but when there’s a glaring amount of data telling you to do one thing over the conventional wisdom, it seems insane not to follow it. Maybe this is isolated to this one hole at Riviera, but I doubt it. If players are going to try out a new driver in an attempt to get an extra few yards, or hire a strength and conditioning coach to make sure they’re as fit as Sir Nick Faldo, you’d figure paying a spreadsheet wizard a couple grand to discover exploitable trends on each course would be worth it.
Northern Trust Open Picks
Sergio Garcia & Jordan Spieth
Per usual, the biggest decision you’re going to have to make this week, at least in the Yahoo! game, will be in the A-List. It’s tough fading DJ and Bubba, especially based on their past performance and skill set, but I’m going to roll with Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth. Sergio doesn’t play a full PGA TOUR schedule, so there’s no danger in using up his starts. Plus, he played pretty awful, at least statistically, last season and almost won. He has an affinity for this course (Two T10s, Three T15s in last three NTO starts) and his distance/ball striking skill set will compete once again… I do worry about using up too many Spieth starts, however, but this may be a week to sneak him into your lineup at low ownership. I anticipate DJ will be the most popular player from this group, so keeping Speith stashed away for bonus points, if you need him, isn’t a terrible idea.
Hideki Matsyuama, JB Holmes, Rory McIlroy & Luke Donald
Rory McIlroy is playing? Use him. Like Sergio, Rory doesn’t play a full PGA schedule, so there’s no need to bank starts… Hideki Matsyuama is coming off a win in Phoenix, and has the proper skill set to contend at Riviera too. Hideki sits Top 40 in ball striking and scrambling, and a lofty second in SG: T2G. Oh, he’s never finished worse than 23rd at Riviera either… JB Holmes simply continues producing quality Fantasy finishes every week. In four 2016 starts, the bomber has gone T24/T6/T6/T11… It’s no fun having an all-chalk team, so I’ll pass on Justin Rose, for fellow Brit Luke Donald. No, Donald doesn’t have No. 1 in the world game anymore, but he’s been covertly playing much better golf recently. He’s Top 50 in both SG: T2G and SG: Putt, and still possesses elite scrambling skills (20th) and Par 4 Scoring (17th); specially on holes measuring between 450-500 yards (1st).
Charl Schwartzel & Jamie Lovemark
Charl Schwartzel is primed to let me down this week. He’s such an obvious pick, it’s bound to backfire. Schwartzel’s won two of his last three starts, granted they weren’t in strong fields. The Tshwane Open is basically a minor-league event, and the Alfred Dunhill he won wasn’t the uber-competitive British one, it was the South African version, the one he always wins. Still, better than losing. Beyond that, though, Schwartzel’s game seems perfectly tailored for success at Riviera. He has Top 15 grades in driving distance (14th), SG: T2G (3rd), GIR (4th), ball striking (11th), and scrambling (5th). Yes, it’s a very small sample of events, but those skills with very good recent form seem like winning combo… Jamie Lovemark tanked in Phoenix, but that’s OK, not everyone is vintage Tiger. Before that missed cut, Lovemark was ascending, notching three T10s in his previous four starts, and now gets to tackle a course in which he’s plenty familiar. A USC product, Lovemark’s distance and scrambling will allow him to save strokes others cannot, and he’ll have an advantage over the field on the lengthy Par 4s (8th on TOUR from 450-500 P4s this season).