Alright, here we go. We got the first taste of a classic course last week with Pebble Beach, and Brandt Snedeker didn't disappoint with another sterling performance in his two-shot win. A big gun in a big venue. Now we head down the coast to Pacific Palisades and Riviera Country Club, otherwise know as Hogan's Alley… the playground of Hollywood stars and golf's greatest champions for decades. And the field is the best yet.
So we've got a combination of top players, tricky (but soft) fairways that bend left and right, overhanging trees, bumpy greens and tough short game shots… reachable par-5's and par-4's, bunkers in the middle of putting surfaces, and a historic clubhouse that looms over the course. Winning scores can range anywhere from single digits to well into the teen under par depending on the conditions.
Last year was one of the best finishes of the season, with Bill Haas prevailing in a playoff over Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, who both birdied the 72nd hole to get in. Of those three I like Bradley the best this week, although it's a gamble taking any of them these days.
Onto the picks, which we break into two categories: the top-three among the big guns, and the diamonds in the rough among the rest of the field.
1. Adam Scott. Won here in 2005 in a weather-shortened event (good thing Dustin Johnson wasn't on Tour back then, I guess). This was his first event last year and he finished T17. I'm expecting a monster year from the Aussie in 2013.
2. Luke Donald. Has three top-6 finishes at Riviera since 2008, but this is his first Tour event of 2013. Still, I like his steady game on a classic course that rewards accuracy.
3. Mickelson. Lost in a playoff here last year, won back-to-back in 2008-09. His play at Pebble last week wasn't overly inspiring, however.
Other big guns in the field: Haas (defending champ), Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, Jim Furyk
4. Bo Van Pelt. A T8 last year and T15 in 2010, along with two other top-15's in nine career appearances. He's coming off a T16 in Scottsdale after a final-round 64 and a practice-round 59. Just needs to sequence his game a little better, and there's no one on Tour more primed for a win than BVP. Only thing holding him back right now is his putting, which is ranked in the 120's compared to 11th in 2012. That stat should start to improve this week.
5. Jimmy Walker. As much as I liked him at Pebble last week because of his history there, it's even better at Riviera with consecutive T4 finishes. The last time he missed the cut here was 2005, too. He's made 14 consecutive cuts dating back to 2012, including top-5's in two of the last three weeks.
6. Aaron Baddeley. I said to avoid him last week, shirking off his history at Pebble because his stats were so bad. But, oh yeah, this guy can putt (ranked 9th), and he finished T12. His play at Riviera over the years has been excellent, including a win in 2011 and T11 last year.
7. Ryan Moore. It's getting harder and harder to ignore results, as he's become a top-10 fixture the last six months and won his last event of 2012. He's coming off a fourth-place finish at the Waste Management and finished T4 at Riviera in 2011.
8. Charles Howell III. His last win on Tour was in 2007 at this event. He has had some very average years since then, but his start to 2013 can't be ignored: T3, P2, T9, T36. The last time he had two top-3 finishes prior to the Northern Trust? Yep, 2007.
9. Chris Kirk. He has two missed cuts in two appearances here, but it's a brave new world for Kirk in 2013. He's already made $950k with two top-5 finishes -- only $240K behind his 27-event total in 2012. He's putting lights-out and making a ton of birdies. Never a bad play to go with a confident, hot hand.
10. JB Holmes. His last five Northern Trust Opens: T8 (2012), T12, T3, T6, T7. His best finish so far in 2013 is T50, however. Never fear, in three of those years his best finish prior to Riviera was T45 or worse. He's got good mojo here.
Bonus Pick: Patrick Cantlay. He made his pro debut here last year and missed the cut. The UCLA grad and celebrated amateur has to have that in the back of his mind, and he knows this course better than 75% of the players in the field. He's coming off a ninth-place finish last week at Pebble, too.
Player to avoid: Brian Gay. I think he'll improve on his career record here, which surprisingly includes three consecutive missed cuts for the notorious straight hitter / great putter. But for those looking to capitalize on his hot hand, this might not be the week.
The good and the bad from last week. Well, this day had to come for me sometime: awful performances (and missed cuts) by Dustin Johnson, Paddy Harrington, Steve Marino and David Duval. Throw in an disinterested Phil Mickelson and mediocre Tim Clark, and that's an unacceptable collection of picks. Even my 'avoid him' pick, Badds, thumbed his nose at me and placed well. Jimmy Walker (T3) was about the only bright spot. I've counseled with Bob Rotella and we've decided not to dwell on the past -- we control what we can control. So it's time for a beer.
Photo: USA Today Sports Images