NEWS

5 players to watch at the Northern Trust Open

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The odds are almost 50-50 that 72 holes won't be enough to determine a winner at the Northern Trust Open this week.

Seven of the past 15 tournaments at Pacific Palisades have gone to a sudden-death playoff -- including three times in the past four years -- so there's something about venerable Riviera Country Club that brings out close competition.

How close? Nobody's had a victory margin of more than three strokes since Chip Beck won by four in 1988. And it's also a tough tournament to repeat at. Phil Mickelson was the last to successfully defend his title (2008-09).

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Why? Mainly because it's a course that many Tour players love, and not just because of the spectacular views and celebrities in the gallery. It's a tremendous test, and the field for this one is chock-full of big names.

With the Masters some seven weeks away, now's the time to seriously begin preparation. And even though Riviera's kikuyu fairways are a far cry from what players will face at Augusta National in April, it's considered a shot-maker's course. And a win Sunday at Riviera is a huge stepping stone toward wearing the green jacket.

Here are the five players to keep a close eye on this week:

5. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2015-16 season:
T11 at the HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: This is McIlroy's first visit to Riviera, and he's hoping to sharpen his game by switching his traditional pre-Masters schedule a bit. McIlroy hasn't played on the Tour since November, but carded a pair of top-10 finishes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, so he's coming into this week's event with an eye on regaining that world No. 1 ranking

4. James Hahn
Best finish in 2015-16 season:
Sixth at the CIMB Classic
Reason to watch: The defending Northern Trust Open champ wants to be known for something other than his dancing and selling shoes at Nordstrom. And a repeat performance at Riviera might just do the trick. Hahn had a streak of six consecutive made cuts snapped last week at Pebble Beach. But he was in contention at both the Farmers and Sony Open before fading on the weekend, so the game is there -- if he can put together four solid rounds.

3. Bubba Watson
Best finish in 2015-16 season:
T10 at Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Reason to watch: Which Watson will show up? The one who won here by two strokes over Dustin Johnson two years ago, or the one who missed the cut at Pebble Beach last weekend? Saturday is generally considered "Moving Day" on Tour, but in each of the last three tournaments Watson's played in, he's gone the wrong way in the third round. He shot 73s in Maui and Phoenix, and 74 at Pebble Beach. If he can avoid a weekend pitfall, Riviera should be to his liking.

2. Jordan Spieth
Best finish in 2015-16 season:
Won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Reason to watch: Spieth has called Riviera his "favorite course" -- he was a final-hole par from joining last year's playoff -- and revealed that he was seriously considered attending Southern Cal on a golf scholarship instead of Texas. He'll be paired with long-time friend Justin Thomas and long-time legend Fred Couples, making his 34th start there. Spieth admits perhaps trying to play too many tournaments in too many locales this winter had drained him physically and mentally. That may have explained his struggles at Pebble Beach. However, he finished with a final-round 66 -- a good sign heading into the stretch run before the Masters.

1. Dustin Johnson
Best finish in 2015-16 season:
T5 at the WGC-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: It's easy to refer to D.J. as the Riviera bridesmaid, considering his recent results there. He finished second to Bubba Watson in 2014 and lost a sudden-death playoff to James Hahn last year. He never really got untracked at Pebble Beach -- you have to wonder if that final-round 80 in miserable conditions at the Farmers was still on his mind -- but before that, he had two top-10s. If there's such a thing as "being due," perhaps Riviera will repay Johnson with a long-desired victory. He's certainly put himself in position to do just that. And his short game is simply amazing, as evidenced by this little display.