Tiger’s quest for No. 83 goes to a familiar, yet oddly unsuccessful, place

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — It has a slightly different name and a loftier status among PGA Tour events, and the tournament that dates to 1926 has long been regarded as one of golf’s best, no matter what it is called.

Known for most of its existence as the Los Angeles Open in some form, the tournament now goes by Genesis Invitational and is no longer “open.” It got a new designation this year in deference to host Tiger Woods, whose event has received “elevated status” on par with the legacy tournaments of Arnold Palmer (Arnold Palmer Invitational) and Jack Nicklaus (Memorial Tournament).

Like those events, the Genesis Invitational now sports a 120-player field — down from 144 — and will give a three-year exemption to the winner, along with an increased purse of $9.3 million.

None of that was needed to attract a strong field to the final event of the West Coast swing, but nine of the top 10 in the world — only Webb Simpson is passing — are in the field for the event at Riviera Country Club.

Here are several storylines to follow this week.

Tiger’s return

After two weeks off, host Tiger Woods is playing his first event since a tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open, giving him two top-10s this season, along with his victory in October at the Zozo Championship.

This is the start of what promises to be a busy stretch for Woods leading to his Masters defense. Although he has yet to announce any tournament plans beyond the Genesis, Woods is expected to play next week’s WGC-Mexico Championship. He then could be expected to play the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship, meaning four tournaments in five weeks.

If he follows last year’s run-up, he would then add the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play as his final event prior to the Masters.

As for this week, can Woods beat a stacked field to attain his 83rd and record-breaking PGA Tour victory?

It would be all too fitting, as Riviera is where he played his first PGA Tour event as an amateur in 1992, is the closest tournament venue to his boyhood Southern California home, and is now his event.

But of course there is that pesky bit of history: Woods has 13 appearances in the various forms of the L.A. Open without a victory — the most of any tournament that he has not won, surpassing the 10 visits to the Northern Trust (played at various courses). He does have four top-10s and two runner-ups (one came at Valencia Country Club) and tied for 15th last year.

The 2019 tournament was played in cold, rainy conditions with several delays — not a good formula for Woods’ bad back. The fact he managed a top-15 finish was a positive, and he should be helped by a better — although still chilly — forecast this week.

Side note: With a stacked field, an abundance of world ranking points are on offer. Woods is ranked eighth in the world, but is the sixth American behind Brooks Koepka (2), Justin Thomas (4), Dustin Johnson (5), Patrick Cantlay (6) and Webb Simpson (7).

As it relates to the Olympics — where only four players from a country who are ranked among the top 15 in the world will qualify — it again points out the fierce competition to get to the Games. Xander Schauffele is ninth, Tony Finau 12th and Patrick Reed 13th.

The bottom line for Woods is this: A top-5 finish this week would do him a world of good as it relates to the Olympics.

Rory is No. 1

For the first time since September 2015, Rory McIlroy, 30, is ranked No. 1 in the world. He moved to the top spot Monday despite not playing last week. But given his performance over the past several months — and Koepka’s inactivity until recently because of a knee injury — getting to the top appeared inevitable.

Since missing the cut at The Open in his hometown of Portrush, Northern Ireland, McIlroy has nine top-9 finishes in 11 worldwide starts, including two victories. In his past four starts, he has tied for third, won, finished fourth and tied for third. And last year at Riviera he tied for fourth.

No. 1 will again be in play this week for McIlroy, Koepka and Jon Rahm.

What about Brooks?

Koepka makes his 2020 U.S. debut at Riviera and will play his first domestic tournament since he missed the cut in Las Vegas in October. Koepka, went to No. 1 after an impressive victory at the PGA Championship in May and finished top-4 in all four major championships to solidify his spot atop the rankings.

But he clearly lost momentum after a stem cell procedure on his knee following the Tour Championship and a subsequent injury suffered at the CJ Cup in South Korea, which happened when he slipped on a wet path. Koepka missed the Presidents Cup and didn’t return until a European Tour event three weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, where he tied for 34th. He was 17th at the Saudi International two weeks ago, and the combination of lack of activity and mediocre results allowed others, including McIlroy, to catch up.

Koepka will now get on a run of tournaments. It is unclear if he is going to Mexico next week but he has committed to the Honda Classic and Valspar Championship and you would expect him at the Players Championship as well.

Jordan’s rebound

Although the top 65 and ties were credited with making the cut at Pebble Beach, only the top 60 advanced to the final round — and that could have been a huge deal to Jordan Spieth, who made the advancing score on the number.

He then took advantage on Sunday by shooting the best score of the day, making an unlikely par from off the green at the last hole to shoot 67 and move into the top-10 with a tie for ninth. That was just enough for Spieth to squeak into 49th place on the Official World Golf Rankings, thus qualifying for next week’s WGC-Mexico Championship.

Spieth has yet to say if he will go to Mexico, as he is also scheduled to play this week at the Genesis Invitational. But after a tie for 55th at the Farmers Insurance Open followed by a missed cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Spieth had dropped out of the top 50 for the first time in more than six years, putting the World Golf Championship events in peril.

It has been a long fight back for Spieth, who continues to struggle off the tee but gutted out that Sunday score in some tough conditions. For the final round, Spieth was first in strokes gained around the green, strokes gained approach to the green, and strokes gained tee to green.

Now if he could just find a the fairway a bit more often …

What will Phil do next?

There are a couple of ways to look at Phil Mickelson‘s performance Sunday at Pebble Beach. Sure, he blew what was an excellent chance to secure his 45th PGA Tour victory, the first time he’s been in contention in a PGA Tour event in a year. Mickelson was just a stroke out of the lead when he double-bogeyed the eighth hole. He played the last 11 holes in 5 over par and missed moving into the top 50 in the world by a single shot. And he missed a 5-footer for birdie on the final hole that would have gotten him a tie for second needed to move to 49th in the world, thus qualifying for next week’s WGC-Mexico Championship.

But Mickelson wasn’t figuring to be in Mexico anyway. On Monday, he said he already had made plans and would not go even if he qualified. That’s why he added this week’s Genesis Invitational, which will mean five straight tournaments to start 2020. And given where he was just two weeks ago, this has been an impressive turnaround.

After missing the cut at Torrey Pines, Mickelson went to Saudi Arabia, where he shot three of the four rounds in the 60s and tied for third, 3 shots behind winner Graeme McDowell. He added three more rounds in the 60s at Pebble, including a Friday 64 at Monterey Peninsula.

You have to go back two years to find consecutive top-10 finishes for Mickelson, who tied for sixth at the Genesis Open followed by a win in Mexico in 2017. The two weeks prior to that were his last consecutive top-5s, when he tied for fifth in Phoenix and tied for second at Pebble Beach.

“These last couple of weeks have really given me a lot of motivation and momentum to continue doing what I’ve been doing,” Mickelson said. “I loved having a chance to be in it again. It’s so fun being in the last group, and I’m hoping to continue to build on this.”

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