It's not the same old Riviera anymore, not with the Tom Fazio tuck job-turned-face lift designed to render the 76-year-old course a more attractive suitor for the U.S. Open sometime in the next decade.
It's also not the same old Nissan Open, which begins today in the comfy canyon nestled nicely in Pacific Palisades, amid leafy eucalyptus, gnarly barrancas and not-so-tough rough. For the first time since Tiger Woods turned pro, he's not going to show up, not that they're going to stop the show in his absence.
Sergio Garcia probably said it best Wednesday. "If Tiger were here, it would be that extra spicy in the soup," he said.
Actually, there's a lot going on for the next four days at hoary Riviera, where six holes are new, last week's champion is old (well, Jose Maria Olazabal is 36), Garcia feels old at 22 and the weather forecast says they won't have to play the last hole underwater as they did last year.
And what a thrill that was. Who can forget the sight of Robert Allenby a year ago, knocking his three-wood to kick-in range on the first hole of what was either a six-player playoff or a claiming race, the rain beating off his wraparound glasses that were more like some sort of soggy windshield?
Garcia, who shot a 66 in the first round and was two over par the rest of the way, says he loves Riviera, which puts him in the majority after all the changes.
The official yardage of the "new" Riviera says 7,078 yards, which is only about 20 yards longer than last year's official yardage, but it could be longer than that if the tees are all the way back at the eighth and 12th. So far, the so-called "controversial" eighth, with a double fairway, has been a big pushover, with players choosing to go down the new right side, at least until somebody puts a big net down there.
Said Garcia: "To tell you the truth, I don't think anybody's going to hit it left." (Riviera memo to self: Get Fazio on phone, ask for rebate.)
As for the rough, this cannot be considered a descriptive term this week. It's only two inches higher. Here's speculating that Garcia's stack of expense account receipts is higher.
There is much at stake this week, the $3.7-million purse with $666,000 to the winner notwithstanding.
Without Woods, who is supposed to be taking the week off to a) get healthy, or b) re-learn his swing, you have to say the Nissan Open is as wide open as anyone can imagine.
As usual, the players who hit the ball straight, get the ball on the green and putt the best are going to be favored.
Identifying them is difficult.
David Duval is back after a three-week absence with what appears to be a new-found intensity.
And Garcia would be chief among all of them if he had played recently, but he hasn't. Garcia hasn't played a PGA Tour event in a month, when he tied for 40th at the Sony Open. However, he won the week before, with an 18-under score at the Mercedes Championships, so you have to take him seriously.
He says he is a much better player than in 2000, when he started playing the PGA Tour on a regular basis. He says he's able to control the ball much better and to scramble with precision, if that's a possible description. "You just mature," he said.
Oddly enough, a few Garcia clones are experiencing the same thing. Charles Howell III, David Gossett and Matt Kuchar are all here to see who is the fastest of the so-called "Young Guns."
Gossett, 22, won the John Deere Classic. Howell is also 22 and he has been on a tear, tying for fourth at the Sony Open and for sixth at the Bob Hope.
Kuchar, 23, is still trying to break through. He might be best remembered as the smiling Georgia Tech freshman who won the 1997 U.S. Amateur, was 21st at the Masters and fourth in the U.S. Open. He turned pro nearly three years ago, so Garcia says he knows just where he fits in with this group.
"I actually feel like the old guy," he said. "I've been hanging around more than they have and I feel like I have a little more experience than they do.
"Probably age-wise, I'm one of the youngest. But maybe mentally I'm not."
Next week, the $5-million Accenture World Match Play Championship is being played at La Costa, and that means a stronger-than-usual field of international players will play at Riviera.
It is a group that includes Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Olazabal, Vijay Singh and John Daly.
All right, Daly is from Arkansas. Maybe he gets a special exemption this week.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
What: Nissan Open
Where: Riviera Country Club (7,078 yards, par 71), Pacific Palisades.
Purse: $3.7 million. Winner's share: $666,000.
Television: USA (today-Friday, 1-3 p.m.); Ch. 2 (Saturday-Sunday, noon-3 p.m.).
T.J. Simers: A Chilly reception at Riviera. D2
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