Balls in the Air: Northern Trust Open
By Stephanie Wei under Balls in the Air

Steve Stricker looks to defend his title at Riviera

I’ve only heard great things about Riviera. From what I’ve gathered from the players and caddies, they all love the course. Long-hitters who have control off the tee have an advantage this week if the conditions stay damp and soft. Good shot-making and smart course management for approach shots are keys to conquering Riviera. You’ve gotta be able to move the ball left and right. A ballstriker that can move the ball should play well (Phil!). You can’t let the shots get away from you because if you’re on the wrong side of the green, you’re either screwed or you’re going to have a real tough shot. Staying below the hole is also important because of the slick greens (however, if it rains, conditions will be softer like they were today).

“The course is playing really long with the rain, but I’ll just go out there and play the best I can,” said Corey Pavin. That said, I’d probably skip over Pavin for your Fantasy lineup this week.

Robert Karlsson and Louis Oosthuizen are making their debut as PGA Tour rookies. How on earth are they considered rookies? Well, it’s their first-year taking up membership on the PGA Tour. They’re both playing in Europe and in the States this year.

I’m keeping the words of actual rookie Keegan Bradley in mind, “I wouldn’t want to be a short hitter this week.” Yep, that’s why guys like Phil Mickelson, J.B. Holmes and Dustin Johnson have played well at Riviera. But Luke Donald, who would be considered an average-length driver at best, has finished no worse than tied for 6 in the past three years.

Without further ado, here are my picks for the week.


Phil Mickelson: What I said above. He hits it long. He’s a good shot-maker, who also has a great short game, which is key around these slippery greens. Phil won this event in ’08 and ’09 and placed 2nd in ’07. He finished T9 at Pebble Beach last week and has been playing well this season. Look for his game to peak at Riviera. Also, I was given a tip from a trusted source: “You’d be crazy not to pick Phil.”


Luke Donald: Simply for his record at Riviera. In his last three starts, he’s placed 2nd, T6 and T3 at the Northern Trust Open. That’s enough for me. Oh, he played well in the pro-am on Wednesday, too. He shot four-under, the second best score of the day behind Fred Couples at six-under.


Steve Stricker: I’m going with the defending champ, who also has a good record at Riviera. In the last three starts, he’s won, finished second and T11. This season he placed T4 and T9 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open, respectively. He played in Qatar for the European Tour event a few weeks ago, which he found to be like his first day at school — he didn’t know where to register, he didn’t know where anything was, he was in a foreign land and had trouble getting adjusted, and he never caught up with sleep. “I take my hat off to these guys do it on a regular basis…I found it very hard to go over there and concentrate and play well, and I can see when these guys travel across from Europe to hear how difficult it’s got to be for them because there’s a lot of outside distractions that are going on, and the uncertainty of things, too.”

Hunter Mahan: He’s been playing well with a second place finish last week at Pebble Beach. He missed the cut at Riviera last year. His best finish at the NTO was T17 in 2009. But I’ll take my chances. He seems to like the course.


Alex Prugh: He placed in the top-ten last year during his rookie season. He’s finished T21 and T22 in his last two starts. Maybe this week he’ll break out with his first top-ten in 2011. Prugh, who played his college golf at University of Washington, doesn’t mind wet conditions, either. He shot his best scores at Riviera last year during the soggy days.

Rickie Fowler: He missed the cut last year, but let’s chalk that one up to a bad week and inexperience. He’s got the distance and shapes the ball nicely. Maybe a concern is his accuracy. The fairways are tree-lined and relatively tight, but there’s no rough this year, so you can hit it a little off line.


J.B. Holmes: He’s played well at Riviera with three top-ten finishes in his last three starts: T3, T6 and T7. When I chatted with him briefly on No. 10 on Wednesday, he said he wasn’t hitting his driver straight, but I think he was just being self-deprecating. He still shot 3-under in the pro-am, which tied for the third best score of the day.


Keegan Bradley: Loves the course and says it suits his game. He’s a long-hitter, but keeps it controlled and hits a lot of fairways. He just couldn’t stop gushing about Riviera. He’s playing really well. In four starts, he’s made every cut, including three top-25 finishes and one top-ten. Nice start for the rookie from New England.



If I could, I’d also throw Fred Couples in there. Actually, it was a toss-up. Freddie shot six-under in the pro-am on Wednesday — the low round of the day. He’s won twice at Riviera (’90 and ’92). For a senior citizen (in golf years — 51), he’s shown that he can still compete with the kids. He played the Phoenix Open and placed T41, which is pretty good considering the frigid conditions couldn’t have been good for his back.

Alright, you know the drill — it’s your turn. Who do you have this week?

(Bottom photo: AP/Ross D. Franklin)