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Bubba Watson brings his game, name to Riviera

Bubba Watson, No. 3 in the world and defending champion, tops the field of the Northern Trust Open

There has been a lot talk about golf's future as the sport fades into life after Tiger and Phil.

Epitaphs have already been posted as the world reflects on a lopsided rivalry that produced 19 major championships.

The future, in fact, may look a lot like this week's Northern Trust Open.

Neither Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson is here, which is a shame until you consider this isn't 2002.

Woods is 39, held together by surgical tape and memories in a world-class scrapbook. He fled his latest scene after 11 holes of the Farmers Insurance Open, complaining his "glutes" had failed to activate.

When he'll return no one knows.

The truth is Woods gave up on Riviera Country Club years ago, last playing in 2006. The Northern Trust remains the only tournament Woods has played at least five times and not won.

When he'll return here, if ever, no one knows.

Mickelson loves Riviera, was a back-to-back winner in 2008-09, but he's taking this week off because it conflicted with spring break for his children.

"They accommodated my schedule enough over the years," Mickelson wrote on his website. "It's time for me to accommodate theirs."

Mickelson's game also needed some accommodation. He turns 45 in June and is coming off his worst season on the PGA Tour.

The fresh start to his new season has so far resulted in a tie for 24th at the Humana followed by two missed cuts.

It's easy to look at this week's 144-player field at the Northern Trust field and see what's missing.

No Tiger, no Phil, and no world No.1 (Rory McIlroy).

No defending FedEx champ (Billy Horschel), no Rickie Fowler, no Jason Day, no Adam Scott.

It didn't help that the WGC-Accenture Match Play event, which normally follows the Northern Trust, has been moved this year to May. A lot of players who are not here liked to link Riviera as a companion piece to the Arizona tournament.

We are left with vagaries and realities.

Breaking news: Icons eventually flame out and the game forges ahead.

There is plenty left to like about this week's field, which features 20 of the top 50 players and one of the few golfers who can hold his own in the one-name recognition business.

"Who doesn't want to say the name Bubba?" defending champion Bubba Watson joked Wednesday. "It's so much easier to say than Bubba Watson."

Watson is a name that still resonates. No longer fresh off the range at age 36, he is one superstar on an upward arc.

His win last year at Riviera sparked a mid-career revival in which he went on to win his second Masters, plus the WGC-HSBC event last November in China.

While some careers are fading, Watson has risen to No. 3 in the world. Bubba is bubbling with the arrival of a baby daughter and he seems poised to add more trinkets to an already impressive trophy case.

Watson marks his comeback to last year's comeback win at Riviera, when he narrowly survived the cut and then fired weekend rounds of 64-64 to win the Northern Trust.

"It kind of springboarded me in the right direction," Watson said.

While the golf world is in constant flux, Watson loves Riviera because it is a constant. It's one of the few courses on tour that hasn't been stretched like taffy.

"They are letting the golf course just defend itself," he said.

Riviera is a course, born in 1927, that acts its age. It's still a par 71, pristinely presented at 7,439 yards. They haven't added any lakes or dramatically altered the contours.

"Every tournament has history," Watson said, " but I see it personally, for me, as they don't tweak it. They just leave it the way it is."

Watson joked he is "surprised they haven't tried to move the clubhouse yet, make No.1 a lot farther like a lot of golf courses think they need to do."

No chance.

Riviera's hilltop opener remains a timeless charmer, a 503-yard par five meant to be a birdie hole — a confidence booster before reality sets in.

Riviera is not like some dart-board PGA tournaments where 15 under might not get you on the leaderboard.

Ryan Palmer shot 19 under at the Humana Challenge last month and finished tied for 10th.

"I like the fact that it won't be 20 under this week that wins," said Bill Haas, who won the Humana at 22 under. "And if you are 20 under, you will win."

This week's field may be thinner than usual, but it's still formidable.

It features four players ranked in the world top 10 in Watson (3), Jim Furyk (6), Sergio Garcia (7) and Jordan Spieth (9).

Furyk was the 54-hole leader at Pebble Beach last week before finishing tied for seventh.

The top three finishers at Pebble — Brandt Snedeker, Nick Watney and Charlie Beljan — all made the pilgrimage down the coast.

Snedeker broke out of his slump with a three-shot victory at 22 under.

Other tour winners from this season playing at Riviera include Jimmy Walker and Haas, the 2012 Northern Trust champion.

Another player to watch is Dustin Johnson, back on tour after taking a six-month leave of absence.

Johnson finished tied for fourth last week at Pebble Beach. Johnson has always played well at Riviera, with three top-10 finishes.

So forget about first-names Tiger, and Phil, and Rory this week, but focus on first-name Bubba.

"Right now, I'm on top of my game," Watson said. "Doesn't mean I'm going to play good this week. Doesn't mean I'm going to play good the rest of the year. Just means, right now, I'm playing good."

And, right now, that's good enough for golf.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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