Can Bill Haas successfully defend his title at Riviera?
The action in the PGA Tour's Northern Trust Open is just getting underway Thursday at the historic Riviera Country Club, and with plenty of golf still to play it's worth fleshing out who the favorites and dark horses are to win at week's end.
Luke Donald is the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 3, followed by Adam Scott at No. 7, No. 8 Lee Westwood. Also featured is Bubba Watson at No. 9, and the lovable Phil Mickelson rounds out the competition's top-10 players.
It's hard to get a pulse on how players will do this early in the year, but find out whether any of those aforementioned stars are among the favorites to win this leg of the PGA's West Coast swing.
The reigning Masters winner hasn't had a ton of success since picking up that green jacket, having not won a tournament since then. That seems to indicate that the long-hitting, all-feel player is due for a trophy, and there isn't a much better place for him to do it than here.
Watson obviously hits the ball a mile and is one of the premier ball-strikers in the world—largely thanks to the short clubs he pulls on approach shots due to his incredible length.
Putting has always been a bit of an inconsistent area for Watson, but if he can drain a few, he has a legitimate shot at winning.
Plus, this venue was kind to him just a year ago as he finished in a tie for 13th.
What's most encouraging more recently, though, is that Watson fired a seven-under 64 in the final round of the Phoenix Open to come in 15th. That gives him plenty of positives to draw on entering this event, and with his ability to make birdie from anywhere, expect him to be a major factor.
The defending champion has posted two consecutive top-10 finishes after an inconsistent start to the 2013 season.
One of the quieter big names in American golf, Haas won this event in dramatic fashion last year, besting both Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson in a playoff after both players jarred birdie putts on the 72nd hole.
The long putt Haas made in the playoff showed he can come through in the clutch, and he clearly feels comfortable on this course.
At a venue that didn't yield low scores in 2012, Haas has to hope that such a trend continues since it plays favorably into what he does best. Ball-striking will be paramount, which is precisely what Haas excels at. His iron play is exceptional, and he is one of the best at driving the ball in terms of distance and accuracy.
If he can simply hole a few putts, he has a solid chance of repeating as the winner.
It took the aforementioned heroics of Haas to keep Mickelson out of the winner's circle at Riviera in 2012, and that bodes well for him this week.
Although he was off his game at Pebble Beach after a dominant wire-to-wire win at the Phoenix Open, Lefty has the length and confidence in his new Callaway RAZR Fit Xtreme driver to vault into contention again.
According to Golfweek.com's Alex Miceli, Mickelson seemed to be right on point entering play on Thursday:
Three days after leaving Pebble Beach in bewilderment, Mickelson looked like a new man in the Wednesday pro-am. He hit crisp iron shots, but more importantly, smashed solid tee shots with all clubs, except for a wayward 5-wood, which Mickelson was trying for the first time in the current configuration.
Mickelson indicated that he was only a fraction off last week, and this account seems to indicate that he is back in his groove.
Questions lingered about how much Mickelson had left prior to his win at TPC Scottsdale, but those can be put to bed for now even after a tough most recent tournament. Look for him to be in the hunt come Sunday, especially since he won this very event back in 2008 and 2009.
It's hard to put a Masters champion down under the dark-horse category, but the South African's brilliant play has gone largely unnoticed lately.
Primarily playing on the Sunshine and European Tours, Schwartzel has been on a tear. The co-sanctioned Alfred Dunhill Championship and Joburg Open are two of the Sunshine Tour's three most lucrative tournaments.
Schwartzel won the former late last year, and just finished runner-up in the latter to start 2013. That was preceded by another win, a runner-up finish, a tie for third and a solo fifth, which has helped key his resurgence back into golf's elite.
This will be his first PGA Tour event since the BMW Championship in last year's FedEx Cup, so it is feasible that not many fans in the States will be paying attention to him.
That is, until he suddenly soars into contention—which is a distinct possibility given his outstanding form.
As successful as Hanson has been on the world stage, he has not one PGA Tour win to show for it. That could very well change for the recent Team Europe Ryder Cup member
At the 2012 BMW Masters on the European Tour, Hanson out-dueled the world's best player in Rory McIlroy to pull off a one-shot victory. He also posted a tie for third at the Masters and a top-10 in the PGA Championship that McIlroy ran away with.
2013 has been a solid but not spectacular start for Hanson, which puts the Swede as one of the top players in the world that is likely to be overlooked.
Hanson did, however, post a top-10 at the Abu Dhabi event that both McIlroy and Tiger Woods missed the cut in. The difficult conditions, narrow fairways and penal rough made for a formidable early-season test, and Hanson clearly passed.
Hanson rocks a stellar all-around game with adequate length, precise iron play and a steady putter. He deserves more recognition than he currently demands, and a maiden victory on the PGA Tour would help that cause immensely.