February 14, 2013
Ben Hogan bought the fairway to heaven, Humphrey Bogart no longer stands pickled and perched beneath the sycamore on No. 12 and member Jim Murray isn't around to describe Riviera Country Club, as he once did, as "like a coquettish woman who winks at you behind her fan."
Where is Dean Martin, holding a full house in the clubhouse, when you need him?
Tiger Woods might tell you about Riviera, but he hasn't been here since 2006, even though the club let him play as an amateur on an exemption in his first PGA tournament when Tiger was just a cub.
Woods has conquered Augusta National, the pines at Torrey and St. Andrews, but he remains in the winless protection program at one of the game's best tracks.
The good news is the best golfing Riviera guide left on Earth, Fred Couples, is in the field for a record 31st time.
Couples, 53, needed a helping hand to get here and received it in the form of a sponsor's exemption for the Northern Trust Open, which begins Thursday.
He makes no apologies for robbing some tour rookie of his ticket-in dream.
"There are some tournaments where I feel like people deserve to play, and I feel like I deserve to be in this field," Couples said.
Couples is a two-time winner here, in 1990 and 1992, and about as beloved on course as the sunsets over Pacific Palisades.
Will Couples be a four-day factor?
That is highly doubtful, although few outside the 144-player field would be opposed to the idea.
Couples remains capable of periodic spells of magic. At Riviera he finished tied for seventh as recently as 2010, and last year shot a first-day 70 before a 76 sent him on his way. That second-day tee time of 7:09 a.m. was a killer, though, and this year he's set to go off Thursday at 7:22.
"I might not play well, but I'm going to get up a heck of a lot earlier and try to get ready," Couples said.
There are more logical choices to win on this par-71, historic course of 7,349 yards.
You could list toward Phil Mickelson, Bill Haas or Keegan Bradley, who ended up in a playoff last year that was dramatically won by Haas on the second playoff hole.
All Haas had to do to win was roll in a 45-foot birdie putt on the par-four 10th hole.
For dramatic effect, these same three men are grouped together with a 7:11 tee time Thursday on — where else? — the 10th hole.
Ah, what memories.
"If I bogey the first hole right out the gate, I'll forget about it," Haas said about last year's heroics on No. 10. "It's what have you done for me lately in this game."
Mickelson is an even bet here to win or bomb out. He's already had a Phil-like season, following a remarkable performance at the Phoenix Open with an outing at Pebble Beach that literally ended up on the rocks.
Mickelson risked serious injury Saturday when he fell on his backside on the seaside rocks in search of his tee shot on the par-five finishing hole. Mickelson took a triple-bogey eight only to follow with a double bogey the next day, on the same hole.
"I got lucky," he said Wednesday of his fall. "I could have certainly fallen poorly or fallen the wrong way. But I ended up OK."
Which Phil will Riviera see this week?
He is a two-time winner, in 2008 and 2009, after ditching Riviera for many years because he didn't think he could win here.
This is Mickelson's fifth straight week in the starting gate, but only he could consider this a home game since he'll be commuting by plane from his home in Rancho Santa Fe.
"It takes me about an hour, 15, 20 minutes door to door," pilot Phil said.
That's faster than it takes some days to get from Riviera to the 405 Freeway.
Also in this week's "clusters to watch" should be the grouping of Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and Adam Scott. All are making their 2013 tour debuts this week.
Donald, who has fallen from first to third in the World Golf Rankings, isn't worried about coming late to a season in which Woods and Mickelson have already hoisted trophies.
"It's a marathon," Donald said. "Not a sprint."
Others capable of winning include Bubba Watson, Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson. Sergio Garcia is also opening his PGA season.
Watson, the reigning Masters champion, is rebounding from early-season flu that forced him to withdraw from the Farmers Insurance Open.
These guys know the course's hook nooks and nuances, but not like Couples, who could play Riviera in socks with his eyes closed.
He has watched the classic, drivable, 315-yard, par-four 10th hole change before those eyes. Equipment and other factors — deer antler spray? — have made the green easier to reach, but that's offset by a sloping surface that has been shaved closer than a sailor's face.
Couples used to play a two- or three-iron and tell his caddie, " 'Put the three [birdie] on the scorecard.…' Now, I would take a four and run to the next hole."
Couples says it is imperative to take advantage of the majestic, but short (503 yards), par-five opening hole. It's a bogey hole only if you are distracted by the view.
"You kick yourself if you don't birdie No.1," Couples said.
Hogan called the 236-yard fourth hole the best par-three in America. The par-three sixth is distinguishable for its bunker in the middle of the green. The par-four eighth has not one, but two, fairways.
Couples' man crush with Riviera sets in on the last three holes, although he adds, "Even 15 is an incredible hole."
The par-three 16th requires landing a mid-iron 166 yards onto a tea-saucer green. That's followed by the longest acreage, a 590-yard par-five, and concludes with the iconic, uphill, dogleg-right finishing hole.
"It's kind of a shot-maker's course," Couples said. "You don't want to miss any of these greens."
Or, at Riviera, any of the cuts.