Tiger Woods has a mental scrapbook filled with fond memories of the annual PGA Tour stop at Riviera Country Club. His first professional tournament as a wiry 16-year-old amateur invitee from Western High School. Images of such players as Corey Pavin and Fred Couples winning on the famous Pacific Palisades layout. Days spent with his father watching the golf heroes he would soon eclipse on tour.
But there’s a page missing from that very thick volume. The player who many argue is the sport’s best golfer has never managed to win on a course only 40 miles up the 405 from his boyhood home in Cypress. He’s been close, he’s had spectacular stretches, but his 12 previous efforts on the eucalyptus-lined George Thomas layout have never left him atop the leaderboard.
Beginning Thursday, Woods will try to remedy that when he tees off with good friends Steve Stricker and Justin Thomas against a major-championship-caliber field in the opening round of the Genesis Invitational.
“I have historically never really putted well here,” Woods said Tuesday at Riviera. “I’ve played here so many rounds. It suits a natural cutter of the golf ball, so I figured that’s what I have done pretty much my entire career.
“But when it comes right down to it, you have to hit the ball well here because the greens are so small and they’re so slopey. But for some reason, everything kind of breaks toward six, and I still haven’t quite figured that out.”
His best finish at Riviera was a tie for second behind Ernie Els in 1999, though he also finished second in the tournament the year before when it was played at Valencia Country Club because the U.S. Senior Open was at Riviera. He has two other top-10s and finished tied for 15th in the weather-plagued event last year.
That result featured a vintage Woods stretch at the start of the rain-delayed third round late Saturday afternoon, when Woods — starting on the 10th hole — got three birdies and an eagle on his first four holes in front of an animated, enormous and very hopeful gallery. He couldn’t sustain that, however, and after completing a round of 65 Sunday morning, slumped to a one-over 72 in the final round.
Woods did not play at Riviera from 2007 through 2017, an 11-year span during which he won 25 tournaments.
“Well, he just hasn’t played here, has he?” said noted golf coach Sean Foley, who worked with Woods from 2010 to 2014. “I’m really not sure why, but if he had played it regularly, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have won here.”
Woods, who after repeated surgeries went winless from 2014 through 2017, won the Tour Championship in 2018, the Masters for his 15th major championship in 2019 and the ZOZO Championship in Japan last October. That was his 82nd victory, tying him with Sam Snead for the most wins in a career.
Asked whether he had given any thought to the story line if he were to win a record 83rd title at the site where he first played against tour pros, Woods smiled broadly.
“Yes, that’s been mentioned,” he said.
“Yeah, to come here in, what, ’92 and play, but to come here with my dad and my old pro Rudy [Duran], who took me up here. I remember seeing Lanny Wadkins play well here and win, seeing Corey Pavin and Davis [Love] and Freddie [Couples] go after it. There’s a lot of history for me to come up and play.”
Winning this tournament won’t get any easier for Woods, 44, as the tournament once known as the Los Angeles Open has been elevated to invitational status, with an increased purse and prestige of being an event on par with the Memorial hosted by Jack Nicklaus and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
With its $9.3-million purse and three-year tour exemption to the winner, instead of the usual two years, the field contains nine of the top 10-ranked players in the world and 19 of the top 25. Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay, Nos. 1 through 6 respectively, could offer stiff competition for Woods.
How important is winning at Riviera to Woods?
“I’ve played in a number of events over the years and for me not to win an event that has meant so much to me in my hometown ... I’ve done well in San Diego, I’ve done well at Sherwood, just haven’t done well here,” he said. “So hopefully I can put it together this week and we’ll have a great conversation on Sunday.”