PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — The PGA Tour marketed the 2011 season as "The rise of the 20-somethings," which was understandable given that 13 players in their 20s accounted for 16 Tour wins last year.
So far, though, the story has been "The rise of the mid-career 30-somethings who have a lot of game and are nice guys" — [stop for air] — "but who have remained anonymous to sports fans and even some golf fans."
As a marketing hook it's a bit lacking, which explains how the attention of sports fans has been hijacked by Tiger Woods spitting on a green and Bill Murray being Bill Murray. Woods can't find his game whether he's playing on the coast or in the desert, and at this season's best tournament, the Farmers Insurance Open, fans filed out feeling as if the wrong lefty won (Bubba Watson edged Phil Mickelson).
But we're only six weeks into the season, and we stand at a particularly promising point on the schedule.
For one thing, this week's Tour offering, the Northern Trust Open at fabled Riviera Country Club, is up against a relatively weak European tour event, the second-year Avantha Masters at DLF Golf and C.C. in Gurgaon, India. (No disrespect to Jeev Milkha Singh, Shiv Kapur and Jyoti Randhawa, the home crowd favorites.)
The LPGA finally gets going with a newly minted No. 1, Yani Tseng, 22, at the Honda LPGA Thailand.
And at the Champions tour's Ace Group Classic at The Quarry in Naples, Fla., the focus will be partly on Hale Irwin. A 45-time winner on the circuit, Irwin, 65, finished T6 at the Allianz Championship last week, his 199th top-10 finish, four shy of the all-time record held by Bob Charles.
Despite his achy back, Ace Group defending champion Fred Couples will be playing the Northern Trust at Riviera, with Anthony Kim and Bubba Watson in the first two rounds.
Indeed, with the PGA Tour finding its footing, it will be tough if not impossible for any other tournament here or abroad to steal the spotlight for at least the next two weeks.
The world's top 64 players will get together for the first time this year at the WGC-Accenture Match Play next week. And Mickelson will look for momentum and his first victory in 10 months at the Northern Trust, starting at 3:12 p.m. ET (with Paul Casey and Luke Donald) Thursday.
"I feel like I'm right on the cusp of playing some great golf because I feel like I'm driving the ball very well, better than I ever have probably," Mickelson said after finishing T9 at Pebble Beach on Sunday. "I feel like my iron play is back and my distance control has been sharp. And I feel like I'm rolling the ball very well. It's on my line."
These are good things for the Tour, as is the strength of the field at Riviera. World No. 6 Casey is coming off a Euro tour victory in Bahrain on Jan. 30, and fellow Brit Donald (No. 9) is making his first start of 2011.
"It's been seven or eight years since I had a long off-season," said Donald, who has been at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., working out with coach Pat Goss at the Bear's Club for the last four weeks. "I haven't had more than one or two weeks of not touching a club. And there were some things in my swing that I'd wanted to work on."
Donald was the 2010 Northern Trust runner-up to Steve Stricker, who returns to action after notching top-10s at both Hawaii tournaments and taking a four-week break.
Matt Kuchar is also coming off a break, and has had an even better start to this season, with two top-10s in Hawaii and one at the Bob Hope.
With the rain, which greeted players as they woke up Wednesday, Riviera has been playing particularly long. The course's driveable, 315-yard par-4 10th hole, the Kodak Challenge hole this week, gets a lot of publicity, but four par-4s on the back nine are over 450 yards. As Keegan Bradley put it, "I'd hate to be a short hitter this week."
You'd hate to be a bunter any week at Riviera. There's a reason why Mickelson has won here twice ('08, '09). J.B. Holmes and Dustin Johnson tied for third here a year ago, and are back this week. Holmes has posted top 10s in his last three appearances at the Northern Trust, with a scoring average of 68.50 and 10 of 12 rounds in the 60s.
What's more, he's had a fairly strong start to the season, finishing T5 in Phoenix and T13 at Pebble Beach.
Stewart Cink showed up to Riviera with a big scratch across his right cheek, the result of a run-in with a branch while tree-skiing with Zach Johnson and their families at Copper Mountain two weeks ago.
"I didn't even know it happened until I got back to the house," said Cink, who said he was wearing a helmet.
If nothing changes — and that's a big "if" considering Ernie Els WD'd from Riviera with a stiff neck — Cink would play defending Accenture champion Ian Poulter in the first round next week. It's a tough draw for both players.
Poulter is not at Riviera, but Rickie Fowler is, still seeking his first win. British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, who plans to play both the European and PGA tours this year, will start his U.S. stretch this week.
"We're probably going to try and base ourselves a bit in Florida, at Old Palm," said Oosthuizen, who played Riviera's tougher back nine with Zach Johnson on Tuesday.
Taking after his mentor Els, Oosthuizen said he will play a heavy Tour schedule in Florida.
The feeling at Riviera is that players are gearing up for something bigger. After the Match Play comes the Florida Swing, when pretty much every top player begins to think about the Masters. For players as much as fans, there's a lot to look forward to both this week and in the near future.
Snedeker, Frazar battle Tour's trendiest injury
Brandt Snedeker, coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip last September, has enjoyed top-10 finishes at San Diego and Phoenix. Still, there was a slight hitch in his gait after he climbed the long flight of wooden stairs that lead from Riviera's 18th green to the clubhouse.
Harrison Frazar can relate.
The 39-year-old Dallas resident is coming off a lost season after left hip pain finally forced him to go in for surgery last July. The doctor said Frazar's hip would take so long to rehabilitate — a cyst needed to be removed, and there was also a torn labrum and a bone spur — he might as well go in for previously postponed arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, which he did in August.
"It had been an atrocious year," said Frazar, who has finished second four times and earned nearly $10 million on Tour. "I was spending more time in the fitness trailer than on the range, and I needed to hit the reset button."
He and his wife went to Europe. He coached his son's lacrosse team, and got so far away from Tour golf he didn't realize Lee Westwood had become the new No. 1 player until three weeks after it happened. Frazar filed for a medical extension for 2011, and after a T54 at the Hope and a missed cut at the Farmers, he has nine tournaments left in which to earn $500,000 and keep his playing privileges.
Repetitive-use tears in the left hip have plagued a long line of Tour pros, among them Jesper Parnevik and Greg Norman. Said Frazar, "It reminds you of your mortality."
Jason Gore, who four-spotted his way into the Farmers in San Diego, made it through Monday-qualifying for the second time this year. So did two-time heart-transplant recipient Erik Compton. The other four-spotters at Riviera are Bio Kim and Tim Wilkinson. ... Steve Marino threw away $350,000 or so by making triple-bogey on 18 at Pebble on Sunday, but Alex Cejka may have leaked even more oil (and as much cash). He bogeyed 13 and 15 and double-bogeyed 17 and 18 to shoot 42 on the back, going from 11-under (would have tied for third) to 5-under (T21). Both players are in the field at Riviera. ... Troy Merritt, one of the feel-good stories of 2010 when he won the $1 million Kodak Challenge, has missed four cuts in four starts in 2011. But he's a notoriously slow starter, having missed seven straight cuts in early 2010. This will be his first start at Riviera. ... Oosthuizen said he was hunting for kudu when he tore ligaments in his left ankle, sidelining him for six weeks late last year. "I ran around a bush to get a clear shot and went over a pothole," he said. "It wasn't the cleverest thing."