LOS ANGELES (AP) — PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan looked across Riviera in the early stages of the Genesis Invitational on Thursday and purposely stated the obvious. “There's a lot of great players out here,” he said.
Great players were on a great golf course, and the first round was shaping up to be a draw.
In gorgeous conditions, once the sun climbed over the hilltop homes and temperatures warmed, Matt Fitzpatrick of England had the early lead at 5-under 66, courtesy of a 25-foot eagle putt and a 45-foot birdie putt.
Riviera was in mint condition, and being dry and firm made it tougher than it might have looked.
Patrick Cantlay, coming off chances to win in Palm Springs and Pebble Beach, extended his run of good play with four birdies on his back nine and was in a large group at 67.
Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world who has played Riviera as consistently well as anyone over the last 10 years, couldn't take advantage of the par 5s and still scrapped his way around to a 68, mainly by taking five putts over the last six holes.
“You can't ask for a course in better shape,” Johnson said. “The greens are perfect. It's firm and fast. This golf course plays really difficult when it's firm and fast. You have to be in the right position or you've got no chance.”
Fitzpatrick, the No. 20 player in the world who ended last year by winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai on the European Tour, holed a 45-foot birdie putt on the par-3 14th, made birdie on the next par 3 at the 16th and after making the turn, holed a 25-foot eagle putt on No. 1, which has yielded more eagles than any par 5 on tour since 2004.
“It's a great start, couldn't ask for any better,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like I struggle a little bit on poa annua, so to see them how they are this week, so firm and fast, they're as true as I've ever seen. It's a big advantage of me.”
Defending champion Adam Scott opened with a 69.
Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Phoenix Open winner Brooks Koepka played in the afternoon.
Riviera didn't feel all that pleasant when the day began just after sunrise in the chill and the breeze, especially those who started the round on No. 10, among the best short par 4s in America.
The ground was hard. The wind was stiff. It felt close to impossible to get anything close.
Scott was trying to land his shot to the left and short of the green. Instead, it hit hard and eventually bounced off a cart path behind the green.
“I had 75 yards to the spot I was trying to hit,” said Scott, who escaped with a par by making an 8-foot putt.
Johnson hit a 7-wood over the green and needed two putts from 40 feet for a par that left him “thrilled” as he headed to the next tee.
Cantlay was trying to land it short of the green, and instead it landed 2 yards onto the green “and I was dead.”
He would have needed a flop shot over the back bunker to a tiny landing area on the firm green, and decided instead to pitch away from the flag and across the narrow green to leave himself a 55-foot putt. It was a disciplined play, even after he three-putted for bogey.
“It didn't feel like I did anything wrong except the hole is really, really hard when it's blowing 15 miles an hour downwind,” he said.
His group of Jon Ram (70) and Collin Morikawa (73) played it in 4-over par.
Cantlay, who won about a half-hour up the road at Sherwood last fall, had a 61 on the last day to finish runner-up in The American Express and followed that with a tie for third at Pebble Beach. He didn't feel much different at Riviera, which he has played for a decade from his time at UCLA.
“Even though I bogeyed the 10th hole, which you feel you shouldn’t bogey because it’s so short, and I made another silly bogey on 15, I felt like my game’s in such a good spot that it was only a matter of time before I turned around and made some birdies,” he said. “Definitely taking that confidence with me.”