Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Northern Trust Open - Fantasy Picks

Bill Haas defeated Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in a 2012 playoff at Riviera Country Club. (Harry How/Getty Images)

If there's ever such a thing as bringing Riviera Country Club to its knees, Bubba Watson did just that on the weekend en route to his two-stroke victory at last year's Northern Trust Open. The lefty began the third round in a 15-way tie for 40th, which meant an opening tee ball at the iconic, par-4 10th. He birdied the hole and went on to submit bogey-free, 7-under 64s in the last two rounds.

For the week, Watson led the field in distance of all drives (303.9 yards), strokes gained: tee-to-green (2.993 average) and par breakers (1 eagle, 22 birdies). He also ranked fifth in proximity to the hole and inside the top four in par-3, par-4 and par-5 scoring. Three bogeys and three doubles stymied a run at the record books, but he proved that bombers can thrive on the old track. Of course, Watson's talent supersedes a single defining trait, but his success nonetheless emboldens the emerging trend of long, relatively straight hitters. In fact, both Watson and runner-up Dustin Johnson fashioned weeks worthy of the 300/60 Club; that is, each finished with average distances of measured drives over 300 yards and with an accuracy north of 60 percent.

Riviera is a par 35-36=71 that can stretch 7,349 yards, and it's stingy. Its scoring average last year was 71.209. That signified a four-year low, but there are no gimmes on the course. For the fourth consecutive year, its conversion percentage from three feet and in (98.53) ranked lowest on the PGA TOUR. Furthermore, all of the percentages of the six measured ranges from eight feet and in were inside the fourth-lowest in 2014.

It's no secret that anyone beginning his round on the par-5 first better walk off that green with no worse than birdie. The 503-yard opener has ranked as the easiest hole on the course in every edition since data was first recorded in earnest in 1984. It's also been the first- or second-easiest No. 1 hole on TOUR every year since 2006. Overall, the field of 144 must plan an attack of taking advantage of the trio of par 5s that average among the most scorable sets all season.

It would be foolish to think that Mother Nature can extend the impeccable conditions enjoyed on the Monterey Peninsula last week, but aside from the potential for fog in the morning hours on the weekend at Riviera, there will be little reason to complain. High temperatures will remain around 70 degrees and rain is not expected. Winds are unlikely to be an issue.
  1. Bubba Watson - The defending champ took the last two weeks off following a co-runner-up at the WM Phoenix Open. Eight top threes in last 12 1/2 months.
  2. Jimmy Walker - Arrives at his favorite course after a T21 at Pebble, his worst of four starts in 2015. T4 at Riviera in 2011 and 2012; two top 20s since.
  3. Dustin Johnson - From one track where he's had repeated success (T4 at Pebble Beach) to another. Three top fours and a T10 in seven trips to Riviera.
  4. Jordan Spieth - Brushed off missed cut at Torrey Pines with a steady T7 at Pebble Beach. Led the field in proximity en route to a T12 at Riviera last year.
  5. Bill Haas - The 2012 champ has top 25s in the last four editions of the NTO. Won Humana four weeks ago. Added a T19 at the Farmers.
  6. J.B. Holmes - Backdoor T10 at the AT&T with a field-low-tying 65 on Sunday. T2 week prior at Torrey Pines. No worse than T12 at Riviera from 2008-2012.
  7. Jim Furyk - Failed to convert on 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach and placed T7. Twelve top 10s in last 12 months. Three straight top 25s at Riviera.
  8. Charl Schwartzel - T3 (2013) and fifth (2014) at Riviera. Squandered huge lead in South Africa to open 2015, but finished second and added a T9 in Abu Dhabi.
  9. Sergio Garcia - Struggled on the Gulf Swing on the European Tour to open 2015, but has six top 25s at Riviera, including a T4 in 2012 and T13 in 2013.
  10. Nick Watney - A nod at current form. After striking it so well en route to a T7 at Torrey Pines, putted the lights out at Pebble Beach to finish second.
  11. Webb Simpson - Off since a T7 at the Humana Challenge, which chased a T13 at Waialae. He's 3-for-3 at Riviera with a T15 in 2010 and a T6 in 2013.
  12. Harris English  - Rested after losing in a playoff at the Farmers where he led after 36 holes and co-led entering the finale. T10 at Riviera last year.
  13. Brandt Snedeker - Committed despite having met his objective of qualifying for the Masters with his win at Pebble Beach. T17 at last start at Riviera in 2012.
  14. Charlie Beljan - Solo third at the AT&T. Dusted off a playoff defeat at Riviera in 2013 and tied for 12th last year after sitting T2 through three rounds.
  15. Robert Streb - Hasn't played since a T10 at the WM Phoenix Open, but still leads the PGA TOUR with five top 10s. First child born in the interim.

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This article was written by Rob Bolton, originally posted on (Connect with Rob on Twitter @RobBoltonGolf)

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