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Friday, February 22, 2019

Lynch: Riviera will always be Tiger's Place, with or without a Genesis victory

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif.—Tiger Woods has owned plenty of PGA Tour venues during his career. Bay Hill and Firestone both yielded eight victories. Torrey Pines contributed seven plus one of his 14 majors. Riviera Country Club has produced none of his 80 career titles, but it’s the latest place that Woods can claim to own.

Woods has been the tournament host for the Genesis Open, which benefits his TGR Foundation, for two years. On Wednesday the Tour announced that the event is gaining elevated status, meaning a smaller, elite field, a larger purse and a longer exemption for winners. That places Tiger’s event on a par with Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which the late legend hosted for almost 40 years.

While Nicklaus won the Memorial twice, and Palmer claimed the old Florida Citrus Open that was the forerunner of his own tournament, Woods has left Los Angeles empty-handed in each of his 12 starts, dating back to his debut as a 16-year-old amateur in 1992. There’s no other event on the PGA Tour that he has played as often without winning.

“It’s certainly a love-hate relationship,” Woods said of the storied venue he first played as a child with his father. “I love playing this golf course. For some reason I’ve only played well here one time in the tournament.”

That was 20 years ago, when he finished second to Ernie Els. “I was one back with one to go and put it over there in some beer tent to the right,” Woods remembered. “Hopefully I can do a little bit better this year.”

Woods was also second in 1998 in the only PGA Tour playoff loss of his career—to Billy Mayfair, for trivia lovers—but that year the event was played at Valencia Country Club.

Woods will tee off in Thursday’s storm-threatened first round at 3:22 p.m. Eastern in the company of Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, the same supergroup he was part of for the first two rounds last year, when he missed the cut.

If Woods wants to break his losing streak at Riviera he will have to overcome stiff competition. The field also includes Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and two-time champion Phil Mickelson, who won the 44th title of his PGA Tour career last week at Pebble Beach.

When he leaves Riviera on Sunday, with or without the trophy, Woods is headed south. He confirmed that he will play next week’s WGC-Mexico Championship, a commitment that almost certainly ensures he won’t compete the following week in his hometown tournament at the Honda Classic. “I made the decision yesterday to add Mexico to my schedule and obviously the Florida swing gets very complicated,” he said. “I’m leaving that open-ended right now.”

Woods also revealed that he declined an invitation to the controversial Saudi International held two weeks ago, a decision based more on scheduling than concern about human rights abuses by the host Saudi government. “I turned the opportunity to go to Saudi Arabia down last summer, well before anything had transpired,” Woods said in an apparent reference to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “I’m trying to keep the traveling down to a minimum and just focus on our Tour.”

Woods still managed to draw fire for his golf commitments though. On February 2 he joined Nicklaus for a round with President Trump in Florida. “I played with President Obama the week before San Diego [his last Tour start, three weeks ago] and I played with President Trump last week. I enjoyed both days,” he said with a bipartisan smile. “President Trump has been busy in D.C. Hasn’t played a lot of golf. Hasn’t had the tan playing outside. We had a great time.”

Fresh off his win at Pebble Beach, a resurgent Mickelson will go off at 10:22 a.m. Eastern with Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele. Include Woods among those who will be paying attention. “It has always pushed me,” he said of his rivalry with Lefty. “My entire career, we’ve always looked at the leaderboard and tried to figure out where one another is at.”

But unlike Mickelson, even if Woods isn’t on top of the leaderboard Sunday night at least he can still claim to own the place.