LOS ANGELES – In the morning chill at Riviera, Charles Howell III began his round at the Northern Trust Open with a tee shot that landed in the front bunker on the par-4 10th hole. He was only 30 feet away from the hole. And it took him four shots to finish.
Such is the nature of the best little par 4 on the PGA Tour.
The hole is 315 yards, easily reachable by most of the players. Once a threesome is on the green, they stand to the side to let the next group hit their tee shots to help with the pace of play. Some fans showed up just before sunrise and didn't leave. For golf purists, it's one of the most compelling holes on earth.
Here are a few snapshots:
The front bunker looks like a reasonable spot to be until recognizing the shallow green slopes severely to the back, and the edge is shaved to feed into the back bunker. Howell's mistake was hitting his bunker shot at the flag, which was in the middle of the green. It kept rolling by the flag and into the bunker, and from there he blasted out to about 6 feet and missed the putt. Bogey.
Michael Thompson hit driver well left of the green, which is not the worst place to be. In his case, however, he was so far left of six Bottlebrush trees that he can to hit a flop shot over a trio of towering palms. Unable to control it out of the moderate rough, it sailed too far right and into the bunker.
The good news for Thompson was Howell went first out of the bunker. Upon seeing Howell's ball go through the green and into the back bunker, Thompson wisely played some 20 feet right of the flag to keep it on the green. He two-putted for his bogey.
Kevin Stadler hit driver left of the green toward the Bottlebrush trees. Just his bad luck, the ball was close to the trunk and his only shot was to invert a short iron and play the shot left-handed. He pulled it off brilliantly — at least it looked that way. The shot was straight and rolled up onto the green, and then picked up speed past the hole and kept going, and going, until it slowed at the fringe. And then it rolled a little more and stopped near a sprinkler head. And then it rolled a few inches more and tumbled into the bunker. He blasted out to 10 feet and holed the putt for par. "That was fun," Stadler said as he walked off the green.
Stadler had not hit his bunker shot when he stood to the back of the green and watched Phil Mickelson tee off. Lefty's tee shot was too strong, left of the green, but it took one hop and hit a marshal, coming to rest about pin-high. "There's a break," Stadler said. "Wish he'd been standing by that tree."
Mickelson pitched to 10 feet, and Stadler was walking down the 11th fairway when he heard the cheer for Mickelson making birdie.
Lee Westwood's tee shot went long, well behind the green, about the place where Mickelson's tee shot would have landed if it had not hit the marshal.
Mickelson had teed off on the 11th and was about 40 yards away when he stopped and turned, curious to see how Westwood played his shot.
This truly is among the best theaters in golf.
Westwood, by the way, hit a good pitch to about 15 feet for an easy par.
A year ago, Keegan Bradley was in the front bunker in the playoff with Mickelson and Bill Haas. On this day, he was well short of the bunker, so far to the right that he was close to the alternate green. It's not a good place to be.
That much was clear when a member of the group said, "Five bucks. Does he make 4 or 5? You choose."
Right before Bradley hit the shot, the choice was 4. The flop shot floated in the air and looked to be short, but it landed just over the trap and onto the fringe, and then trickled onto the green. He made a 4.
Brian Gay was in great position with his tee shot. He's among the shorter hitters in golf, and chose to lay up to the left. He had 58 yards left and a decent angle to the diagonal green. The safe shot would have been a pitch that landed on the front of the green and rolled up to about 20 feet. Gay realized the middle part of the green sloped hard to the left, so he took on a small gap just to the left of the front bunker.
It was a smaller margin of error, and he made an error. The shot was too far to the right and went into the sand. He compounded that by aiming at the flag, and his bunker shot went through the green into the back bunker. His next shot hit the 8-inch lip of the bunker and rolled back to the sand. He hit the next onto the green about 7 feet away, and the missed his putt. Triple bogey.
His caddie, Kip Henley, walked over to the 11th tee and said, "What the hell just happened?"
He added a few minutes later, "This has got to be one of the top five holes on tour. Maybe the best. And I'm saying that after my man made triple."