As Saturday drew to a close, the vibe at storied Riviera Country Club seemed out of sorts. The leaderboard was filled with such surnames as McGirt, McNeil, Beljan, Bae and Harman. The Northern Trust Open felt more like some opposite-field tourney than the venerable 88-year-old Tour jewel won by Golf Gods Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Palmer, Casper and, more recently, Mickelson.
Heck, the biggest name on CBS's third-round telecast may have belonged to the 1997 champion, only Nick Faldo was in the booth.
Now to be sure, this year's tournament was missing many of the present day's top stars. But what marquee names there were in the field restored order by making a charge on Sunday, with Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Charl Schwartzel the first three on the leaderboard on the back nine. In the end, it was Watson turning in a second consecutive 7-under 64 to win for the first time in 22 months, beating Johnson by two strokes. Brian Harman and Monday qualifier Justin Allred out of Pepperdine tied for third, with Schwartzel finishing fifth. And for just a little more star power, Justin Spieth made a mini-run on Sunday before settling into a tie for 12th.
I was at Riviera on Saturday, as I've been every year since moving to Los Angeles in 2001. My buddy Mike and I like to see the third round - Thursday and Friday are often work days, while on Sunday you really have to follow the leaders amid a packed gallery. But on Saturday, it's still anybody's tournament, with fans spread all over the course, and we try to see as many golfers as we can, as many holes as we can.
Watson was far back as the weekend began, starting his third round on No. 10, the wonderful risk/reward, 315-yard par-4. He birdied it, and was off and running. Watson played that hole a little too early for us to see it - teeing off at 7:50 local time - but we later parked ourselves in the grandstand there for a while. We saw one memorable shot at No. 10, as Daniel Summerhays drove the green and then made a 30-something-foot putt for eagle, eliciting a roar from the gallery.
Our signature moment came on another fun hole, the par-3 6th, the one with the bunker in the middle of the green. With the pin middle-right, it didn't take long to see what we wanted: a knee-knocking wedge shot from the green. Blake Adams, playing with Johnson and Jim Furyk, hit his tee ball on the green, but middle left, forcing him to loft over the bunker. He actually hit a beauty to a few feet, without damaging the green, only to miss the putt. Sigh. Meanwhile, Furyk hit a terrible tee shot, clipping a tree branch and falling short in the right rough.
But then, this happened.
It's always fun to see a great shot, but to witness what is deemed "the shot of the day," being in the absolute right place at the right time, makes seeing a PGA tour event live that much more worthwhile. We'll always remember the 2014 tourney for Furyk's gem.
At the time, Watson was just beginning to stir. He took the early Saturday clubhouse lead at 8-under, which would end up four strokes off the overnight advantage of William McGirt. The long-hitting left-hander had had some close calls since his 2012 Masters win, though 2013 overall was a disappointment. But Watson has shown he's a different golfer so far in the new wraparound season, with two top-10s coming into Riviera, including a T2 two weeks ago in Phoenix, albeit after losing the third-round lead and missing a five-footer that would've forced a playoff with Kevin Stadler.
And just like, with the meat of the PGA Tour season just beginning, a player with as much shot-making ability as almost anyone on Tour has to be considered a contender in the WGCs and, of course, the Masters, where Watson showed his shot-making skills once before.
A second straight runner-up check, after a win and a T6, and Johnson's season is second only to Jimmy Walker's, with nearly $3 million won, and it's barely Valentine's Day. Paulina Gretzky approves.
The 33-year-old Web.com Tour veteran reached the field by earning one of four berths in a Monday qualifier, then finished T3 to claim $388,600, nearly doubling his career PGA Tour earnings - accrued over 57 prior events. Further, by finishing in the top 10, he's in the field for the Honda Classic in two weeks.
The South African clearly likes the Riviera track, having finished T3 last year and solo fifth this year, though he stumbled on the back nine both times. He didn't fare well last year at the upcoming Match Play event, but he followed that up with a T9 at the Honda. His game seems to be on form to contend there again.
The stocky Southerner was sitting on his first 54-hole lead and seeking his first win in 97 PGA Tour events, but was quickly overtaken by Watson and Co. A two-over 73 left him T6, still one of the best finishes of his career.
In just his third event after missing 2.5 months with a back injury, McNeill played Sunday in the final group. He didn't really contend, with an even-par 71, but his T6 is his second top-10 of the season. He sits a respectable 55th in the FedEx Cup standings.
The man who fell in a playoff last year, then complained that No. 10 shouldn't be a playoff hole would've taken that this year. He began the day in the final group, but stumbled to a two-over 73 to fall into a tie for 12th. (Beljan flashback after losing to John Merrick last year: "I think you could play here 10,000 times and still not know how to play No. 10," Beljan said. "18 [which he and Merrick parred in the playoff] is a great golf hole. You know, I just find it tough that we go to No. 10. To play a playoff hole, I think it's a great hole, don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking it, but it's just a tough hole to have a playoff on. We might as well go and put a windmill out there and hit some putts.")
Looking for his second win in as many years, Bae was the leader at the midway point after a 67-66. But he couldn't keep it going, with a 72-71, to finish T12. He obviously knows how to close; he just couldn't do it this time around.
The diminutive Georgian equaled his best career finish, T3, with four rounds in the 60s. It was his third top-10 of the young season, so the 27-year-old seems headed for his best season to date.
No, he didn't win, but it was another sturdy week for the FedEx Cup points leader, just when you thought he might be due for a letdown. That letdown didn't really come until Sunday, when a two-over 73 dropped him into a tie for 20th.
The absolute fan favorite has been playing the Los Angeles tour stop since 1982, when it was known as the Glen Campbell-Los Angeles Open (he finished T13 and made, get this, $4,987.50). He's played the event every year since but one, winning in 1990 and 1992. Playing via a no-brainer sponsor's exemption and alongside Spieth, 34 years his junior, Couples shot 72-72 to miss the cut by a stroke. The weekend vibe was not the same with out him.