Matt Kuchar loves Riviera Country Club. Comes back almost every year for the annual PGA Tour stop in Pacific Palisades. But for the most part, the course hasn’t loved him back.
In his 13 previous tries on the 93-year-old George Thomas layout, he’s never finished higher than tied for eighth and hasn’t had another finish in the top 10.
Thursday in the opening round of the Genesis Invitational, Kuchar rode a sizzling putter to a bogey-free, seven-under-par 64 to tie his low score in this event and build a three-shot lead heading into Round 2.
“It’s a place that I absolutely love coming every year,” Kuchar said. “I think it’s one of the few courses that has truly stood the test of time. It was a great test of golf 50 years ago when Ben Hogan was playing; it’s a great test today.”
There is an eclectic collection of players on his heels. Harold Varner III, Russell Henley, Wyndham Clark, Adam Schenk and Kyoung-Hoon Lee were at 67, and they were followed one shot behind by some of the big names that helped make this one of the strongest non-major-tournament fields in years.
World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, former UCLA star Patrick Cantlay, Jason Day, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau all were in a group of nine at three under and certainly within striking distance of the top spot.
Lurking one stroke behind them after shooting an erratic 69 (31-38) sits Tiger Woods, hoping to make the tournament only 40 miles or so from his childhood home the record 83rd tour victory of his career (to break a tie with Sam Snead).
Sixteen other players are in the same group at 69, including former No. 1 Brooks Koepka, defending champion J.B. Holmes and Justin Rose.
For Kuchar, last year was all about the caddie. Thursday was all about the rolls. He made more than 118 feet of putts during his round — needing only 25 of them — while dropping several mid-range putts and a couple of 10-yarders for birdies.
A year ago, Kuchar, 41, was embroiled in a controversy involving his significant underpayment to a replacement caddie after winning a tournament in Mexico three months earlier. He issued a statement apologizing for his behavior after his first round at Riviera and wound up finishing tied for 28th.
Thursday, the only issue surrounding Kuchar was whether he would make every putt.
“No. 18 I made about a 30-footer up the hill,” he said, “and No. 8 I made like a 35-footer down the hill. ...
“You can’t count on that every day, I get that, but it sure is fun when they go in.”
He was just as strong from mid-range.
“I made a fair number of putts from five to 10 feet,” he said. “Those start adding up quickly.”
Kuchar has played his last 144 holes in this event in a cumulative six under par. He did that one better Thursday.
Cantlay, who first became familiar with Riviera as a freshman at UCLA, felt he was putting nearly as well as Kuchar, although some of his efforts didn’t find the cup.
“I rolled the ball really good and my speed was really good today,” he said. “Usually that’s a marker of good things to come.”
He has played the course like someone familiar with the classic layout the last few years, tying for fourth two years ago and for 15th a year ago.
McIlroy started in the early-morning chill Thursday on the back nine, had to get up and down to make par on the short par-four 10th, settled for par on the par-five 11th and three-putted for bogey on the 12th.
“Very sluggish start,” he said. “After that I needed to get up and down on 13, 14, 15, 16 just to save par.”
But as the temperature climbed, he eagled the par-five 17th and eagled the par-five first on his way to his 68. He won’t tee off until 11:41 Friday morning.
“The afternoon is going to play a lot different than how it played this morning,” he said. “It’s going to keep getting trickier and you’re going to have to really think your way around this place. I’m looking forward to that.”