LOS ANGELES – The story is grounded in fact, with a dose of fiction, but it speaks to the confounding nature of the best little par 4 in golf.
For the opening two rounds, Geoff Ogilvy chose to hit iron off the tee on the 315-yard 10th hole at Riviera to the far left side of the fairway. That's the best angle into the skinny, diagonal green protected front and back by bunkers. Both days, he made birdie.
His caddie, Alistair "Squirrel" Matthews, talked him into hitting driver in the third round. Ogilvy wound up in an awful spot, which is not difficult to do, and made bogey. He was furious walking to the 11th tee, and Ogilvy became even more annoyed when a cellphone began ringing in his golf bag.
Squirrel forgot to turn off his phone. Instead of switching it to silent, the caddie answered the phone and the conversation was said to go something like this.
"Hello?" he said in his English accent. "Sorry, I can't talk right now, I'm on the golf course." And with that, Squirrel hung up and put the phone back in the bag.
Ogilvy, reaching a boiling point at this stage, demanded to know who called.
"It was my wife," the caddie replied. "She wanted to know why we hit driver on the 10th."
The Northern Trust Open gets under way on Thursday with the strongest field of the year on the PGA Tour, and no hole is more entertaining that No. 10. There are plenty of others short par 4s in golf with great risk and reward, but none so cleverly designed as this one. Even with no water hazards, it can be frightening.
At a mere 315 yards, reachable with a fairway metal for the big hitters, most players are quite happy with par.
Fred Couples is playing Riviera for the 32nd time (including the PGA Championship), and for years he told his caddie on the 10th tee, "Put 3 on the card."
"Now, I would take a 4 and run to the next hole," Couples said.
Two of the last three playoffs at the Northern Trust Open — at least after 72-hole events — have been decided on the 10th hole.
A year ago, Bill Haas hit driver through the green, with just enough of the back bunker in his way that instead of going at the flag on the far right side of the green, he pitched toward the middle of the green and left himself 45 feet. Phil Mickelson came up short in the rough, a horrible spot, and the master of the flop shot came up inches short and wound up in a bunker. Keegan Bradley drove into the bunker and did well to blast out onto the fringe about 15 feet away.
Haas ended it with a long birdie putt across the green.
In 2003, Charles Howell III drove well to the right and into a bunker, and then followed with one of the finest sand shots ever played on that hole — about 55 yards away, he managed to hit it to 6 feet. Mike Weir laid up, hit wedge to 8 feet and made the birdie, and Howell missed his putt and lost.
Those were some memorable finishes.
That hole can produce drama Thursday morning, Friday afternoon, any time that a player is standing on the tee and trying to figure out how to navigate the 10th.
Ernie Els only went for the green once when he won at Riviera in 1999. He recalls the greens being slightly softer back then, and that 90-yard pitch shot is one of his favorites to play. Now it's more firm, and the green is slicker. It's not easy to get it close for birdie no matter what angle.
"You could be 15 yards from the flag and you'll take 4. If you're in the wrong side now, the margin is so" — he paused to rub his thumb and forefinger — "that you can hit a marginally good shot and it will go off the green."
Put a wedge in the hands of the world's best players, even from 80 or 90 yards, and they're looking to stick the shot inside 10 feet.
At the 10th, they're happy to stay on the green.
It has become so difficult, and the equipment is so much better, that driver is often the choice even when the hole location demands an iron off the tee. The closer the shot, the easier to stay on the green.
The best angle is to the far left of the green, but players run the risk of getting stuck behind a few trees. Long is OK, as long as it's far enough to the left, but even then they must skip a wedge up the slope with such precision to get the ball to check. Otherwise, it could reach the edge of the green and fall into a bunker.
It is not unusual to see the world's best go from the back bunker to the front bunker, or the other way around.
"You can't lay up to that back pin," Bradley said. "It's impossible. You can't hold the green. When the pin is in the back right, you have to get it up by the green, and hopefully, over the green. When the pin is on the back right, you're just trying to make 4 most of the time. Bill made a 45-foot putt, which is good for him."
Haas says a perfect shot off the tee can wind up in a bad spot.
"So you pretty much just try to get up there near the green to where you think you can make a good 4 and have a chance at 3," he said. "In my opinion, laying up does not help you. Hitting a wedge, a full wedge to that green, you can easily hop it over the green."
Charles Howell III will be among the first to visit the 10th green Thursday morning. Right behind him is the playoff trio from last year — Mickelson, Bradley and Haas — followed by a group that includes Masters champion Bubba Watson and Couples.
No one has played the 10th more than Couples. He won't tell his caddie to put a 3 on the card before he tees off.