After a run of three first-time winners on the PGA Tour, the odds of that stretch extending to a fourth must be fairly high at this week’s Genesis Invitational where nine of the world’s top 10 have made the trip to Los Angeles.
Riviera, designed by George C. Thomas Jr. and William P. Bell, is hosting its 58th edition. The par 71 which, unusually, features Kikuyu grass everywhere apart from the Poa Annua greens, is a far sterner test than what we’ve been used to this season.
Last year -12 was the number as Max Homa beat Tony Finau in a play-off and in 2020 Adam Scott was the only player to finish in double digits under par.
Winners are often of the thoroughbred variety although there have been a fair number of surprise champions, the common theme being that they were all California locals – Homa 12 months ago, James Hahn in 2015 and John Merrick in 2013.
Repeat winners are common too in the 20th century with Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Scott all ticking that box, Bubba actually lifting the trophy three times. That means a lot of wins for left-handers.
You’ll also note that the above quartet are all Masters champions and that’s the first big clue I’m going to take advantage of.
There are obvious differences between Augusta and Riviera but one big similarity is that both are described as ‘second-shot’ courses and that can be seen when looking at the Strokes Gained: Approach numbers of the last five Genesis winners: 3rd, 20th, 11th, 6th, 3rd.
Like Augusta, course form is another biggie here and the last six Genesis champions all had a previous top five at Riviera.
First stop, therefore, is current Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama.
The Japanese star ranked 5th for SG: Approach when tied eighth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last week and is 11th in that category this season.
And what a season it’s been for the 29-year-old. He’s already won twice, hoisting the silverware in his home CJ Cup and finishing with a pair of 63s to capture the Sony Open last month.
If it seems that Matsuyama has somehow used his wins up – a theory that can prove costly in golf betting – rewind to late 2016 when he won four times in five starts. Okay two of those were Japanese Tour events but one was the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Four starts after that red-hot run he won at TPC Scottsdale and by June 2017 Matsuyama had risen to World No.2.
There are echoes of that now after two wins in his last five starts and a top 10 in Phoenix last week could be a big hint that he’s ready to go in again.
As for that all-important course form, he has a fourth (2015), a fifth (2020), a ninth (2019) and an 11th (2016) in his last six visits to Riviera.
A fan of a tough test, he said a few years ago: “Great memories here at Riviera. Love to play here. The Riviera Country Club is always in pristine condition.
“The greens are very good, very fast, and you have to play well here. You have to strike the ball well to play well here, and that’s one of the reasons I like to play here.”
The 20/1 for a Matsuyama win looks more than fair.
It’s tempting to double down on the Masters angle by also slotting in 2020 Augusta hero Dustin Johnson.
He’s got course form coming out of his ears here (one finish outside the top 10 in the last eight years) and is starting to click into action again after a top 25 at Torrey Pines followed by tied eighth in Saudi last time.
Maybe the ‘Enhanced Win Only at 18s is the way to go although plenty will see him as an each-way steal at 16s.
Instead I’ll drop down to 22s and back one of the players who finished runner-up to DJ in that 2020 Masters, Cameron Smith.
Aussies have a fine record in this event. Scott is a two-time winner and a double runner-up while Robert Allenby (2001) and Aaron Baddeley (2011) also took victory.
Smith, who also has a tied fifth (2018) and a tied 10th (2021) at Augusta, has dropped plenty of hints to suggest he can join his compatriots on the winners’ rollcall.
On his third appearance at Riviera in 2018 he shot middle rounds of 68-65 to lie third after 54 holes before closing with a 71 to take tied sixth.
And last year he was in the top 20 after all four rounds, improving his position as the week went on and ending in a tie for fourth, just three back from the play-off number.
Smith, like the other Aussies, grew up playing on Kikuyu grass and that’s one obvious explanation why they do well at Riviera.
As well as course and correlating form, it’s his current play which really thrusts him forward as a pick.
Now World No.11, Smith won last month’s Sentry Tournament of Champions and added a tied fourth in the Saudi International on his latest start.
Also tied fourth in the RSM Classic in his final event of 2021, Smith’s only misstep in recent months is a missed cut when defending the Sony Open. His crime was to shoot 67-71.
On the stats, Smith ranked 7th for SG: Approach at both the RSM and the Tournament of Champions. SG stats weren’t available in Saudi but he pelted 77.8 of Greens In Regulation which was fourth best.
It’s hard to find a negative so Smith goes into the staking plan.
If following the California angle, two outsiders I looked at were Cameron Tringale and Troy Merritt.
Tringale’s form from October reads 2-MC-7-MC-3-MC so if you like patterns he’s due a good week again.
He’s been consistent here with seven top 30s but his best is an eighth in 2017 and his SG: Approach numbers aren’t anything special.
Merritt was 2nd for SG: Approach when making the top four at Pebble but 11th here in 2016 is his only top 40 finish in seven appearances so perhaps this isn’t the course for him.
Patrick Cantlay would be the obvious local choice but I can leave him at 12s after he had an intense week in Phoenix when losing a play-off to Scottie Scheffler.
Will Zalatoris at 28s is interesting too and we shouldn’t get too fixated on that wonky putting stroke. He was 15th at Riviera last year.
Instead, I’ll jump down the betting for my final selection and choose another 2022 winner.
Thomas Pieters played some excellent golf to beat a star-studded field at the Abu Dhabi Championship last month and it came just two starts after he’d captured the Portugal Masters.
This is the Pieters we expected to emerge when he burst onto the scene with two wins in 2015 and then flexed his muscles with big performances in the majors.
The Belgian finished tied fourth on his Masters debut in 2017 (there’s that Augusta connection again) and tied sixth in the following year’s US PGA.
His challenge for the Green Jacket wasn’t Pieters’ only high point in 2017. He finished in the top five at two WGC events and, course form klaxon, finished runner-up here at Riviera.
Even if you put that down to him just playing superb golf at the time, you can make the same argument this week given those two recent wins.
Since the Abu Dhabi triumph, he’s finished tied 12th at the Dubai Desert Classic and tied 24th in Saudi where he closed 67-71-67 after shooting over par on day one.
As mentioned, SG stats weren’t recorded there but Pieters ranked 1st for Greens In Regulation, backing up a run of strong Approach figures in recent months.
Strokes Gained: Off The Tee has also been a good pointer at Riviera and Pieters ranked second in that category in two of his last three recorded tournaments.
This is his first trip back to Riviera since 2018 but the memories will be strong, especially from his closing 63 in 2017.
Let’s not forget that he was the top points scorer in the 2016 Ryder Cup so when the elite gather, Pieters often rises to the occasion.
Back to 31st in the world, maybe he’s the one to make it a fourth first-time winner on the PGA Tour. Hopefully he’ll be inspired by those recent successes for Luke List, Tom Hoge and Scottie Scheffler.