9:23 PM PST, February 17, 2013
The man who won the Northern Trust Open in a playoff Sunday called it "one of the great par fours we play." The man who lost in the playoff called it "funky" and added, "They might as well put a windmill out there."
So, although the record books will show that Long Beach's John Merrick won the golf event in a playoff with Charlie Beljan, the real winner appeared to be, as usual, No. 10 at Riviera Country Club.
That's where the tournament ended, same as last year. Second playoff hole, same as last year.
It is a par four that plays a few yards over the 300 mark, has docile-looking traps in front and around it and is a wide-open drive from an elevated tee, with the historic and picturesque Riviera clubhouse overlooking it from above. Those playing it for the first time see a breather from the length, traps and lightning greens of the other holes. Their initial reaction is always the same. Ah, something easier.
Sailors viewing the sirens of Greek mythology thought the same thing.
Riviera's No. 10 is the burr in the saddle of PGA Tour players. It is the stone in their shoe, the annoying tag on the new shirt that itches and scratches the back of their neck. It is golf's version of fingernails on a blackboard.
It lay in wait for Merrick and Beljan as the sunny afternoon drew to an end. It had destroyed half of the field along the way and left the other half thanking the powers above that this was the last day of the tournament and they had escaped with minor injuries.
By the time the last group of the day, the leading threesome of Bill Haas, Webb Simpson and Charl Schwartzel, was teeing it up on the hill in the distance, it had done most of its usual selective torture. Haas had taken a three-shot lead into the day. Simpson and Schwartzel were in second at nine under par, as was Merrick, playing in the group ahead.
Merrick had made a birdie and headed off to the No. 11 tee. His birdie was one of 12 for the day there. There were also 16 bogeys and two double bogeys. One of the doubles was by Josh Teater, who played the rest of the course beautifully, shot 69 and shared sixth place. One of the bogeys was by Beljan.
Chances were excellent that the winner of this prestigious golf tournament would come from that final threesome. Schwartzel and Simpson were major winners, Schwartzel the 2011 Masters and Simpson the 2012 U.S. Open. They were battled-tested veterans.
Haas has yet to win a major but has made a significant mark on the tour, especially with a pressure-packed, career-defining shot out of water to win the 2011 FedEx Cup and its accompanying $10-million prize.
Even more significant, he had won here last year, sinking a 50-foot putt on the second playoff hole. Yes, No. 10. Also, his third-round 64 this year had been achieved with the help of a chip-in eagle on, you guessed it, No. 10.
Sunday, as No. 10 beckoned evilly, Simpson decided to lay up, Schwartzel decided to hit driver and cut his shot left to right to the front of the green. Haas wanted to do something similar but hit his driver too flush and watched helplessly from the tee, palms down in a gesture that asked the shot to get down and avoid a collection area to the left of the green from where Houdini himself could not get the next shot to stay on the green.
No. 10, with a green so narrow and slanting that it would be tough to stop a bowling ball on it, had smiled and collected Haas.
Schwartzel got up and down in two for a birdie and remained in contention to the end. Simpson made par and did nothing special the rest of the way, shooting one-over 37 on the back.
Haas chipped into the back trap, took a bogey and was in the midst of a contention-killing, six-out-of-seven-hole run of fives.
As the trio walked off the green, the scorekeeper's placard showed three red numbers — 10, 10, 10 — each now that equal margin under par. Devilishly, No. 10 had given to Schwartzel, yawned at Simpson and taken away from Haas. The only surprise was that the placard didn't read 6, 6, 6.
So it came to pass that Merrick and Beljan, having tied in regulation and parred the first playoff hole, No. 18, stood on the 10th tee and stared toward golfing hell.
"From the tee box," Merrick said later, "you're sitting there, and it looks like — it just looks easy."
Beljan said later, "I don't really have anything good to say about the 10th hole."
Merrick laid up with an iron. Beljan hit a laser drive well left of the green to a near-impossible position to get the ball anywhere for a decent putt. He was a first-timer here and was asked later if he thought lack of local knowledge hurt him.
"I think you could play that hole 10,000 times," he said, "and still not know how to play No. 10."
Merrick's lob wedge left him close enough for a fairly comfortable two-putt par. Beljan scrambled nicely and had 4 feet 7 inches left for a par that would send the playoff to No. 14.
But No. 10 decided it was time for the tournament to end. Beljan's putt touched the side of the cup and squirted away.
Merrick, continuing his theme of praise and awe, said later, "From the tee, it looks like the most benign hole."
Some would see that as merely an assessment. Those with a clearer understanding of No. 10 at Riviera know better. Merrick was sucking up for next year.
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