The last three PGA Tour events have all gone to players residing in the top 15 in the world rankings and I expect that trend to continue at this week’s Genesis Invitational.
Let’s be honest, there are plenty of strong candidates.
World No.1 Dustin Johnson returns to the PGA Tour after winning the European Tour’s Saudi International and six of the top seven in the OWGR head to California.
In order of ranking, Jon Rahm (2) has course form of 17-9, Justin Thomas (3) was runner-up two years ago, Xander Schauffele (4), ninth on debut in 2018, has never finished outside the top 25, Collin Morikawa (6) flirted with the final-round lead on his first start here in 2020 and Rory McIlroy (7) has cracked the top five in the last two editions, shooting a second-round 63 in 2019.
DJ is clearly the man to beat. He’s posted three wins, three seconds, a third, a sixth and an 11th in his last nine nine worldwide starts. And he just so happens to have a win (2017), two seconds, a third, two fourths and three other top 10s at Riviera.
If anyone’s strategy this week is to lump the whole staking plan on Johnson at 11/2, it’s hard to talk them out of it.
However, another way of looking at it is that DJ has failed to win this tournament in 12 of his 13 visits so I’m going to side with another player in the top 10 in the world rankings.
Patrick Cantlay sits at No.8 and looks a huge danger this week.
“I think it’s the best golf course on Tour,” he said last year.
“There’s no tricks, there’s no water on the whole golf course, there’s no real goofiness except maybe the 10th hole, but it’s so short that you realize what you’re getting into. So I just think all in all it’s just the best test that we play.”
A Long Beach resident growing up, Riviera County Club was just a 40-minute drive away and Cantlay also attended UCLA so this is very much his former stomping ground.
“I’m used to poa annua growing up here in southern California,” said Cantlay last year although, ironically, it was probably the flatstick that stopped him challenging more heavily.
Still, he walked off in tied 17th and that followed tied 15th on debut and tied fourth on debut in 2018.
One thing I really like beyond course form and local links is that his confidence is soaring as he prepares to try and gain what would be a huge win.
In his last two starts, Cantlay has taken third at The American Express and tied second in last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The last time he entered an event on the back of two top three (non-winning) finishes, he rode that hot form to victory at another prestigious tournament, The Memorial.
Having tipped us the wink that he’s ready to win again, I’m definitely in the Cantlay camp this week.
Four of the last five winners here ranked in the top six for Strokes Gained: Approach and that plays heavily into Riviera’s reputation for being a “second-shot course”.
Cantlay ranked second in SG: Approach at Pebble Beach (1st Tee To Green) so a good putting week and he has a golden chance of winning in the Golden State.
Take him each-way at 14/1.
Last year, I stumbled on a formula for success at Riviera based on past results and tipped outsider Sung-Hoon Kang at 200/1.
Sometimes such an approach can fall flat on its face but on this occasion it played out: Kang did me a huge favour and finished runner-up.
Inevitably, I’m keen to try the same approach and it’s helped me identify my two other picks at big prices.
First up is 90/1 Jason Kokrak.
Updating the formula to reflect last year’s results, the stats now show that 14 of the last 17 winners at Riviera had already recorded a top 15 at the course.
And adding the 2020 result to a stat picked up by colleague Steve Rawlings, Adam Scott’s victory last year means 14 of the last 15 champions had played this event at least five times.
The final stat I used last year which really whittled the field down was that the last four winners had ranked in the top seven for SG: Off The Tee in one of their previous two starts. In other words, they were driving the ball well coming in.
That applied to Kang and it wasn’t far off being relevant to Scott: he’d been 11th for SG: OTT on his previous start, also ranking 3rd for Total Driving in that same tournament.
I’ll stick to the top seven cut-off point though as it helps me narrow down the field.
Kokrak ticks all the relevant boxes. He was runner-up at Riviera in 2016, adding top 25s the next two years, has played this event nine times previously and ranked 7th for SG: Off The Tee at the Farmers Insurance Open two starts ago when T29.
After a lengthy wait, Kokrak finally gained his first PGA Tour win in October 2020 when capturing the CJ CUP.
He’s not hit those heights yet in 2021 but he did open with a 62 at the Sony Open and has made all four of his worldwide cuts, the latest a T41 at the Saudi International two weeks ago.
Talking about Riviera in 2018 when he took second, the big hitter said: “This golf course makes you stay patient and you know, there’s hard holes and there’s easy holes. So if you can par the par 3s and a couple of the key par 4s, the par 5s are definitely gettable for me.”
It’s a course where he can pull driver and that’s good news for a player who ranked 7th for Driving Distance in 2019 and has been in the top 11 for SG: Off The Tee in each of the last two completed seasons.
Talking about how it helps him at Riviera, Kokrak said: “You can’t hit driver on certain spots but a lot of the long par 4s, you’ve got to hit driver on. A couple of those longer ones are into the wind.”
Kokrak finished in the top five for SG: Off The Tee at Riviera in both 2016 and 2017 so these tee shots clearly suit his eye.
My other ‘formula’ pick is 150/1 chance Luke List.
He’s played this event the requisite five times with a top 15 in 2019 along with some other decent results: T20 on debut, T26 in 2018 and T30 last year when 11th going into the final round.
A great driver of the ball, List ranked 1st in SG: Off The Tee at Torrey Pines and 7th OTT in Phoenix in his last two starts. On the season-long stats he’s 4th in the standings.
Fuelled by that fine hitting, he’s in decent form over the last month with T21 at The American Express, T10 at Torrey Pines (R4 66) and T20 in Phoenix where he closed 67-68-67.
I have dug out a quote as well. Speaking after the 66 he fired on his very first lap of Riviera in 2016, List said: “Such a great golf course and holds it’s own no matter what the weather is. To have no bogeys, I was really happy with it.”
List’s putter has been cold but he recorded his best SG: Putting figures in over a year on his latest start (Phoenix) so that should instil some confidence. This event is far from a putting contest but that discovery doesn’t hurt.
Take him at 150/1.
Brendan Steele also comes through the statistical hurdles outlined above so he could be another to consider.
The Californian was T10 here in 2014, is making his 10th visit and ranked 1st OTT in Phoenix. He’s 125/1.
Finally, Sergio Garcia would qualify too. He’s priced at 55/1.