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Next 4 weeks should answer big questions on PGA Tour

The Genesis Invitational
Riviera Country Club, with its drivable par-4 10th hole looming as a classic risk/reward option, plays host to the PGA Tour's Genesis Invitational this week in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

As Riviera wraps up West Coast Swing, golf applies its game face for Florida events and then start of majors season at Augusta

Swinging west and flying east is a time-honored ritual this time of year on the PGA Tour, which usually means more stars more often and the unofficial kickoff for getting extra serious about what’s immediately in front and what’s to come around the corner.

The next four weeks on Tour should go a long way toward setting up what golf looks like heading into major season, and some big questions will start to be answered, with or without fans.

For instance: Is Jordan Spieth back, or does he still have a huge hurdle to leap? Will Dustin Johnson continue to be the best player in the world? Will Rory McIlroy continue to disappoint – us, not him? Will The Concession be a worthy substitute for a World Golf Championships event? Is March better than May for the Players Championship? (Can you believe it’s been almost a year since coronavirus shut down the PGA Tour?) Who will be the early Masters favorites? Will we see Tiger Woods before the Masters?

This week’s Genesis Invitational at famed Riviera is the last stop of the West Coast Swing, which so far has brought us Patrick Reed’s remarkable ability to win with seemingly the whole golf world against him, the stunning revival of Brooks Koepka, Spieth’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes to a yet-to-be-determined height and Daniel Berger’s 72nd-hole eagle to win at Pebble Beach.

The stunningly weak field at Pebble Beach will be replaced by one chock full of big names at Riviera, including eight of the world’s top 10: No. 1 Johnson, Jon Rahm (No. 2), Justin Thomas (3), Xander Schauffele (4), Collin Morikawa (6), McIlroy (7), Patrick Cantlay (8) and Bryson DeChambeau (10). No. 12 Koepka will add star power to the field. Tyrrell Hatton, at No. 5 in the world, is not playing, probably because he will be the defending champion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in two weeks, which could wind up as the weakest field of the four Florida events.

Foremost among those who aren’t in the Genesis field is Woods, the host of this event. He’s on the mend after his fifth back surgery, and it’s not known whether he will play again before the Masters on April 8-11. Because the PGA Tour is officially wedded to sportsbook gambling on golf, you no doubt can get a price on when Woods next appears. FanDuel even has Woods at +3100 to win the Masters, for what that’s worth.

This week, the players come to suburban Los Angeles not only for the purse – $9.3 million, the richest so far in 2021 – but for the quality of the golf course, which usually produces a high-caliber winner. Adam Scott is the defending champion, and he held the 54-hole lead with McIlroy, who, if he could pick his best three rounds of four, would have won a few times over the last year.

The first Florida event is what normally would have been the WGC Mexico Championship, which was forced to move because of COVID-19 problems all over Mexico. Instead, it will be the World Golf Championships at The Concession in Bradenton, Fla. The course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, is named for the famous 18th-hole conceded putt in which Nicklaus gave Jacklin a 2-footer for par in the final match at Royal Birkdale at the 1969 Ryder Cup that led to the first tie between the U.S. and Great Britain teams in the event’s history.

The biggest event hosted by The Concession was the 2015 NCAA Men’s Golf Championships, in which the individual title was won by DeChambeau, who was a junior at Southern Methodist. Whether DeChambeau has extraordinary local knowledge at The Concession is another story, but he did shoot 8-under 280 to win by one.

However, the following week at Bay Hill, DeChambeau, who’s on a short road to becoming a sideshow, has what he thinks is a scratchable itch by driving the green on the dogleg-left par-5 sixth hole, which would take 340 yards, all carry over a lake. Not to say he can’t do it – maybe 1 or 2 out of 10 with the right wind – but why even try it in any setting other than a practice round?

Such thrill-seeking seems to find a suitable place at the API this year, because the tournament director is Joie Chitwood III, whose grandfather was a race-car driver in the 1940s and ‘50s but was best known for stunt driving in the “Joie Chitwood Thrill Show.” Chitwood III is vice president of corporate development for the Arnold Palmer Group after having been executive vice president and COO of International Speedway Corp., which oversees 13 motorsports facilities, including Daytona International Speedway.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational will be the first Florida event to admit spectators, and Chitwood, who is accustomed to packing butts into seats, aims to have up to 8,000 fans per day at Bay Hill.

When the Players Championship reaches Ponte Vedra Beach one week later, it will be the one-year anniversary of when the PGA Tour shut down because of the coronavirus. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan called off the Players after the first round in 2020, and the Tour didn’t return to competition until June, at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial, which was won by Berger – his last victory before Sunday at Pebble Beach.

Once again, the Players is expected to have the strongest field of any event on Tour, even the major championships, as the best players in the world will be competing for a record $15 million purse. That’s a fact you won’t hear on TV, because the Tour seemingly doesn’t allow its broadcast partners to talk about prize money, just FedEx Cup points. The winner of the Players will earn 600 points, in case you’re even interested.

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