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BILL DWYRE

PGA Tour rides wave of excitement into resurgent Riviera

After a dominating finish at Pebble Beach, Phil Mickelson leads a star-studded field into Los Angeles for this week's Northern Trust Open at Pacific Palisades.

February 13, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Phil Mickelson had reason to smile on the back nine Sunday after opening a three-shot lead in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Phil Mickelson had reason to smile on the back nine Sunday after opening… (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images )

There are residuals for Los Angeles from the high-interest day professional golf had Sunday at Pebble Beach.

We got next.

This week's stop on the traveling road show also known as the PGA Tour is a venerable, historic torture chamber known as Riviera Country Club. The annual tournament stop at Riviera for what has always been, essentially, the L.A. Open, has been called a lot of things over its long run, including near-death.

But now, in the last few years, a new sponsor and an old basketball player have revived it. That has meant that players who used to duck it now want to be here and Riviera, always worthy, has regained its rightful spot as one of golf's places to revere.

So, it is no small thing that the man who handled Pebble Beach will be trying to do the same in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera. Phil Mickelson is coming, and the show he put on Sunday may make Pacific Palisades an even tougher ticket and a bigger traffic jam this weekend.

Mickelson, winner of four majors and 40 tour titles, is not the only show, but he is a big one. He has won at Riviera before, and his closing-round 64 at Pebble Beach, best of the day, will certainly bring more buzz.

Mickelson is beloved because he can do such incredible things on the golf course and remain so human off it.

He signs autographs for hours and was asked after his big victory Sunday about one he signed for a young man who asked for it while Mickelson was having breakfast in a restaurant before his final round.

"I'm truly appreciative that I get to play golf for a living," he replied, "and it's the people who come out and support the game that make that possible. That [signing autographs] should be the norm for everybody."

The first few times you hear that sort of boilerplate, gooey response, you are tempted to thrust your finger down your throat. But after a while, you realize that's how he is and that he really means it.

Then there was his moping revelation. Try to find that elsewhere in pro sports.

He was asked what happened when he played lousy on the opening nine in an earlier round in the AT&T at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, then had a quick talk with his wife, Amy, and went out and shot lights out on the back.

"I was moping," he said. "It was terrible."

He said he was told to quit it, to cheer up, go make some birdies.

"I told her in the car [afterward]," he said, "that it wouldn't have been possible without that talk."

Most often, Mickelson comes across as a big teddy bear with a magic golf swing and silky putting touch who makes millions of dollars every year and still takes out the garbage. Don't think that doesn't endear him to the public.

His rival, Tiger Woods, won't be at Riviera. He took a sponsor's exemption years ago for the tournament when he was just starting out, and hasn't been back much since.

But there will be no shortage of foils for the Phil Show.

Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, is entered, as is defending champion Aaron Baddeley, who shot a 67 on Sunday at Pebble Beach and finished fourth, five shots behind Mickelson. Fred Couples, who always plays well at Riviera and would be favored to win if they played only 54 holes, will try to keep his ailing back flexible enough to compete to the end.

Young star Rickie Fowler, always dressed like the side of an ice cream truck, will play, as will last year's PGA champion, Keegan Bradley. There will be many previous major winners, including Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Stewart Cink, Y.E. Yang, Trevor Immelman, Angel Cabrera, Zach Johnson, Justin Leonard, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Geoff Ogilvy.

Charlie Wi, who finished second behind Mickelson at Pebble Beach, will play, as will Sergio Garcia, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson, each possible future major winners.

It hasn't been until the last few years, when the PGA put renewed emphasis on it — and when Northern Trust took over and made Lakers legend Jerry West its spokesman — that the old L.A. Open feel and image returned. They've rebuilt it, and now the players come.

And if timing is everything, the Mickelson super show at Pebble Beach will only prime the pump. Many who clicked on TV sets last weekend will be more inclined to do so again this weekend.

They won't see crashing waves and spectacular cliffs, but they will see some of the better holes in golf, a Ben Hogan plaque or two, and a historic clubhouse overlooking a historic 18th hole.

They won't see something else, but it will be there, for a tournament and its storied golf course.

A renewed sense of belonging.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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