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BILL DWYRE

Riviera's 18th hole provides more golf magic

Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley make dramatic birdie putts on the final hole of regulation to force a playoff with Bill Haas at the Northern Trust Open. Conquering No. 18 is one of golf's greatest feats.

February 19, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Keegan Bradley celebrates after making a birdie putt at No. 18 to force a three-way tie after 72 holes with Phil Mickelson and Bill Haas in the Northern Trust Open on Sunday at Riviera Country Club.
Keegan Bradley celebrates after making a birdie putt at No. 18 to force a… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

It is the final hill of the mountain, golf's equivalent of the last 100 yards to the top of Everest. It is a picturesque canyon, a natural amphitheater for the viewing of hope and horror.

It is the 18th hole at Riviera Country Club.

There, on a Sunday afternoon filled with the usual excitement and drama of the final round of what is now known as the Northern Trust Open but is etched in the minds of local sports fans as the L.A. Open, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley wrote a new chapter to the lore.

It is right up there with most sports "wows." If your spine didn't tingle, see a doctor.

More incredibly, neither Mickelson nor Bradley won the tournament.

The savvy veteran Mickelson, 41, and winner of 40 PGA Tour events and four majors, stood in the late afternoon shadows 169 yards away from a hillside packed with adoring fans and a pin surrounded by a green as slick as a basketball court. He was one shot behind Bill Haas, who was on the driving range, practicing shots he hoped he wouldn't have to take.

Bradley, at 25 only a second-year player, but already a major champion and likely future superstar, had a similar view, only 14 yards closer to the pin.

Mickelson, already a Hall of Famer and a winner here twice before, surely felt the history and the scene. Bradley, who calls Riviera one of his favorite courses and who "sulked for a week" after missing the cut by a shot in his first try last year, probably did too.

Each had to make birdie to get into a playoff with Haas. It was that simple, and that unlikely.

Birdies on No. 18 at Riviera — a par four that plays 475 yards, feels like 600 and looks up a hill into a narrow chute of rough on the left and big trees on the right — are near impossible on a Tuesday afternoon from the members' tee. On the final day of a tour event, with the prestige of winning at Riviera and collecting $1.188 million on the line, it's a roll of the dice, at best.

Surely, Dave Stockton was watching and remembering.

It was 1974, on the tee of the final hole of what was then the Glen Campbell L.A. Open. It is the tee, looking in the distance at the foreboding hill, that once prompted The Times' legendary columnist, the late Jim Murray, to address the bucket list of an aging man.

"I have two goals left," Murray said, while standing there one midweek afternoon, hands clutching a useless driver. "One is to win a Pulitzer Prize, the other is to, just once, hit my drive over this damn hill."

Murray died having achieved half his goal. A Pulitzer Prize.

As Stockton stood there that day in '74, he had a one-shot lead on Sam Snead, who wandered over to mention to Stockton that he had birdied the last two holes at Riviera to beat Ben Hogan. That was in the 1950 L.A. Open, Hogan's first outing in 11 months after his near-fatal auto accident.

Stockton later related, in a 2004 book by Michael Arkush and Ron Cherney titled "My Greatest Shot," that Snead's perceived gamesmanship angered him. He yanked his drive way left into the deep rough, 244 yards to the pin.

"I remember the ball was about eight inches below my feet," Stockton said, "and Sam was standing out on the fairway next to my caddie."

Stockton, still fuming, hit a three-wood to 12 feet and won the tournament by two shots.

"After I hit it," Stockton said, "I walked past Snead and said, 'I guess Hogan didn't hit it that close.' "

There is a plaque at the spot of Stockton's shot. He has said he has tried that shot at least 20 times since and never come close.

There is so much more to the history of Riviera's 18th.

In 1998, Hale Irwin won the U.S. Senior Open by chipping in there on Saturday, then curling in a virtually unmakable 12-foot, downhill slider on Sunday to win by one. In the 1983 PGA Championship, Hal Sutton had frittered away a seven-shot lead and was being chased by Jack Nicklaus when he hit a 201-yard five-iron to 14 feet to save his victory.

In 2001, Robert Allenby hit a magical three-wood through the rain and muck to six feet and a victory. In 2009, a still-competitive Fred Couples, in contention on No. 18, clipped a tree on the right on his approach and finished third.

Mickelson certainly remembered that, since he won that year. And when he hit a nine-iron to the back of the green Sunday, 26 feet 9 inches away from birdie, he knew his odds were long. Bradley's were better. His pitching wedge from 155 came to rest 13 feet 5 inches away.

The scene was magic. Lightning couldn't have created more electricity. Mickelson is beloved, Bradley quickly becoming very popular.

First, Mickelson's putt turned perfectly and rolled in. The thousands in the amphitheater erupted. The hills were alive with the sound of Phil love. One fan rolled down the hill and nearly onto the green.

Mickelson walked past Bradley and whispered, "Join me."

Bradley did, rolling in his half of what will long be another celebrated moment at Riviera's celebrated 18th hole.

That both were beaten on the second playoff hole by an equally magical 45-foot putt on No. 10 by Haas will also be part of the memory of this year's Riviera. But Mickelson and Bradley at No. 18 on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, will resonate for many years, much like Stockton's final words on Snead, now deceased, denying gamesmanship in 1974.

"Snead was full of it," Stockton said.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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