The 2018 Masters is still 50 days away, but that’s just fine because the first major championship of the men’s season begins this week.
We’re having a bit of cheeky fun, but the Genesis Open in Los Angeles is set up to be one of the most exciting PGA Tour events in years. From a hype standpoint, it has to be the best on the “regular season” schedule this year. The shots still need to be hit and the stars still need to align — it could turn into a runaway bore with some name the wider sports world has never heard of winning. That happens in golf.
We’re not arguing this has the stakes or importance or intensity of a major. But sitting here at the start of the week, it’s hard not to be fired up for this tournament in a way that almost approximates that of a major week.
The PGA Tour doesn’t actually run any of those major championships. (If you’re a close, or even semi-close follower of golf, you know this.) This is not an intuitive thing a casual sports fan would really think about often. But the majors, the events that rate the highest and are the most coveted, are actually run by four different ruling bodies. They reap all the benefits of owning and operating them, while the Tour labors week to week on events that might not get as much run (but still make plenty of cash).
The PGA Tour gets its fair share of loaded weeks between The Players, the WGCs, and the FedExCup Playoffs. But after that, it can be hit-or-miss on a schedule with 49 (sure seems like a lot!) official events. You’ve got tourneys that succeed because of the market. You’ve got some that succeed because of the course. Others elbow out their competitors because of the date they fall on.
But rarely does it come together so beautifully like it has this week. Mike Antolini, the tournament director this week, knows they’ve struck gold. “When you have Riviera, you have the West Coast swing, and you have the history, and you have L.A. and you have California in February, the stars really align.”
Antolini is the VP of Championships for Tiger Woods’ foundation and his TGR Live events business, which runs and operates multiple tournaments both on and off the PGA Tour. Some of those tourneys may have to hustle and grind for a field or a venue. This is not one of those tourneys, but even by Riv standards 2018 is exceptional.
I am here being my usual cynical self, wanting to find a weakness or a reason to be critical! The stakes are lower, and the majors are still off in the distance. But I also think in a way that’s what amplifies the hype — it’s mid-February, the Masters is 50 days away, and the anticipation for a golf event just should not be this high. It’s come together this week, however, and here are a few reasons why.
For almost two decades now, the easiest way to categorize PGA Tour events is by the very Manichean designation of a “Tiger tourney” and “non-Tiger tourney.” The ones Tiger patronized were immediately elevated in stature. The fields became stronger. The cash flowed. The ratings soared. And Tiger often won.
Tiger’s schedule became mostly predictable, and it created two classes over the years. You knew he’d be at Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill, Memorial, Firestone etc. You knew where he wouldn’t be, too.
Riviera became one of those spots that was cast aside. Tiger has not played here since 2006. That hiatus hurt — this is arguably the best course on the schedule and it’s his “hometown event,” the place where he made his first PGA Tour start as a teen in 1992. Antolini said getting back here and serving as host “means a lot in his career legacy.”
Whether it was the date, an underwhelming track record, or a course layout and conditioning that Tiger just got uncomfortable with over the years, the Riv got dropped. But now Tiger is back after more than a decade away. His presence also deepens the field around him. Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1 and defending champ, described as only he can, how Tiger “definitely brings an aura to an event that makes it a little more special.”
Tiger is not just back at Riv, but he’s back on Tour after another yearlong injury layoff. He’s made just one start so far, and it resulted in a made cut and top 25 finish. The event this week could be at dirt patch against the weakest field of the year, and the circumstances of this being just his second PGA Tour start in the comeback would turn the hype all the way up. But it’s not at a dirt patch, it’s at ...
I am not a golf architecture expert, and I certainly won’t try to fake it here. I leave that to Fried Egg Andy, Geoff Shackelford, and several other voices that are really impacting and hopefully molding the game in a positive way we may not fully appreciate right now.
But what I do know is that Riviera is a fun-ass golf course. It’s fun to play if you suck. It’s fun to play if you’re good. And it’s fun to watch the absolute best take it on.
“We’re in a very fortunate position when we look at the field,” Antolini said. “Riviera is such a beloved course with the world’s best players. I mean, they love it.”
The interesting holes come one after another from a viewing perspective. There’s the coolest opening tee box view on Tour. There’s a beast of a redan par-3. There’s a donut green with a bunker in the middle of it:
There’s a short drivable par-4 with a crazy green the size of a fingernail. It’s arguably one of the four or five best par-4s in the world. There’s an awesome 18th-hole amphitheater as the course marches out of a canyon and back up to the clubhouse perched above it all. The crowd there gets wild:
Even if you know nothing about architecture, you can still see the intrigue and excitement in these holes.
On the PGA Tour, we rarely get to see golden age designs with bones like this George Thomas classic. It’s got the history that most of other regular PGA Tour stops wish they had. It’s hosted majors and NCAA championships and the most prestigious amateur titles. It’s as good as it gets on the PGA Tour schedule.
3. Los Angeles
Los Angeles should be one of the most important markets in professional golf. But we just don’t come here often enough. There’s this annual stop early in the first quarter of the season, when the rest of the country is frozen, and that’s it. The two U.S. rotating major championships have skipped out on L.A. too. Riviera hosted the 1948 U.S. Open and the 1983 and 1995 PGA Championships. That’s it. The drought will come to an end in 2023 when Los Angeles Country Club opens its gates for what should be a delectable U.S. Open.
With this being the one chance L.A. has for men’s pro golf, every year the gallery has a little extra juice. “Outside the ropes, a lot of celebrities come and watch,” said Antolini. This week, the event overlaps with NBA All-Star weekend. It’s not going to compete with that, but it certainly adds to the circus in a town that’s already a circus. Expect to see a few of those famous NBA faces join the crowds at Riv.
This may be superfluous stuff that the golf diehards don’t care about, but anything that can add to the entertainment value and hype is a welcome addition for one week a year. It’s L.A. Tiger is in town. And so are the most famous pro athletes in the country. Whatever the PGA Tour can draft off to make this more of a show is good.
4. The field
The field is always the ultimate draw for an event. We can talk about markets and architecture and history, but it’s the field that matters most. This is about as good a field as you could ask for in a non-major or non-WGC event. It’s got everything — the young stars, veterans, the top Americans, a distinctly beefed-up Euro and international crowd. Some names just so the point is driven home:
- Phil Mickelson
- Dustin Johnson
- Jordan Spieth
- Rory McIlroy
- Justin Thomas
Antolini hailed the L.A. destination as a draw for international and Euro stars to use as a starting point for stateside play and perhaps a drive toward a PGA Tour card. A crop of elite Euros who you may come to hate at the Ryder Cup in September are here:
- Tommy Fleetwood
- Thomas Pieters
- Rafa Cabrea-Bello
- Alex Noren
- Martin Kaymer
This is still a small sampling of how loaded it is. Adam Scott is here. Haotong Li, the first real phenom from China and one of the most important players in the game, was given an exemption just a day after he beat Rory to win in Dubai. There are up-and-coming Americans like Patrick Cantlay and reigning rookie of the year Xander Schauffele, and Daniel Berger, Kevin Kisner, Matt Kuchar, and on and on.
There are the headliners for casual fans and people who usually don’t care about golf. There are the hipster talents who the diehards crave. There is something for everyone. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk got an exemption and will start his year here, and it’s conceivable that 10 (or if you want to get crazy, maybe even 11) of his team members are in the field this week.
I am not some grizzled veteran golf writer, but I have been doing this for several years and it takes a lot to get me this hyped for a regular PGA Tour stop. It can go sideways, and we may get little-to-no drama on the actual course. But starting out the week, we have the perfect confluence of venue, field, and Tiger that should make this Genesis Open one of the best PGA Tour events in years.