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Friday, February 22, 2019

19th Hole: 90 years on, slow play still on Riviera minds

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Ninety years later, a few pro golfers are world-renowned slow pokes.

Ninety years later, pro golfers sometimes take a public stand against their deliberate peers.

That’s what Brooks Koepka did last week during a SiriusXM interview when he questioned the testicular fortitude of those enforcing pace of play rules.

“Usually, if you’re put on the clock it’s ’cause you’re slow, and guys keep being put on the clock, keep doing it, keep doing it, but no one ever has the balls to actually penalize them.”

When the Los Angeles Open — now known as the Genesis Open — was first played at Riviera Country Club 90 years ago, the game’s top professional took a similar stand. Minus references to private parts.

Walter Hagen was not having a great L.A. Open week after opening with a 77. The reigning Champion Golfer of the Year was announced on the first tee by actress Fay Ward as “the Opium Champion of Great Britain” and was paired with Tommy Armour during the third round of that 1929 L.A. Open, the first at Riviera.

Back then, groupings were notoriety-driven, so The Haig and the Silver Scot were the main draws and put together for Saturday’s round. Armour infamously set up shop over his shots after he triple-bogeyed the first hole and watched a lead slip away. Hagen was out of contention when organizers planned to put him with Armour for Sunday’s final round.

Knowing January days were short and not wanting to suffer another day with Armour, Hagen threatened to withdraw before suffering through another 18 with the Silver Scot. Organizers caved.

Armour blew up Sunday and eventually posted 80, while Macdonald Smith finished his round Sunday and won that first L.A. Open at Riviera by six. Armour had to come back Monday to finish. Hagen undoubtedly uttered the words “I told you so” as he moved on to the next tournament.

With the PGA Tour returning to Riviera and Koepka’s remarks still fresh, this magnificent venue could end up becoming the centerpiece of slow-play discussions. Dating to those early L.A. Open days when the field featured 156 players vying for $10,000, the Los Angeles stop has held its “Open” status and features 144 players. But not since a one-year field reduction to 132 has Round 1 been completed Thursday, prompting calls for a field reduction to get the players around Thursday and Friday.

One problem: Riviera has been taking threesomes of the world’s best five hours-plus to get around for reasons different than a few too many slowpokes. Instead, play bogs down due to traffic congestion prompted by modern driving distances.

Riviera’s two stout back-nine par 5s were once reachable in two only by a Jack Nicklaus or a Tom Weiskopf or a John Daly, but in dry and prevailing down-wind conditions they can now be reached by most of a modern Tour field.

The 311-yard, par-4 10th is also just a-long par 3 in the modern era. Again, two-group backups on that tee never happened in any era until the 21st century.

The waits on those three holes can add as much as a half-hour to a Genesis Open round. We can only imagine what Walter Hagen would have done. But Koepka’s calls for more penalties can’t solve the logjamming caused by players waiting for greens to clear.

Ninety years later, they’re still grappling with moving a field around before sunset so the players can head out to Sunset Boulevard. While a blessing to return to such a magnificent venue after all this time, it is a curse that slow play is still a topic of conversation after all of these years. Gwk