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Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy lead golfers to watch at Northern Trust Open

By Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 17, 2016 at 7:12 AM
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10 golfers to watch at Northern Trust Open at Riviera:

1. Jordan Spieth, United States -- His run atop the World Golf Rankings has reached 21 weeks, and a total of 32 since he first got there last August, but former No. 1 Rory McIlroy has claimed he wants the top spot back before the Masters. Spieth started 2016 by winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions before tying for fifth in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and finishing second in the Singapore Open. Last week, he tied for 21st at Pebble Beach, but hopes his final-round 66 will give him momentum heading to Riviera. After missing the cut in the Northern Trust as an amateur in 2012, he tied for 12th in 2014 and tied for fourth a year ago and is 13-under-par in eight rounds at "Hogan's Alley" as a pro.

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2. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland -- The Irishman usually passes on the entire West Coast Swing, but he will be at Riviera this week because he has heard so much about the classic course, which should fit his ball-striker's game. Former world No. 1 McIlroy is down to No. 3 behind Jordan Spieth and Jason Day of Australia despite winning four times last year, and he continues to play some good golf. He started 2016 by tying for third in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and tying for sixth in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic after winning his final start of 2015, the DP World Tour Championship-Dubai to wrap up the European Tour's Race to Dubai for the third time in four seasons, and being selected Golfer of the Year on the circuit.

3. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan -- Coming off his second PGA Tour victory in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Matsuyama should be fresh after taking a one-week break after he beat Rickie Fowler on the fourth playoff hole. That showed his mettle as he bounced back from a missed cut in the Farmers Insurance Open a week earlier. The Japanese star has risen to No. 12 in the World Golf Rankings and is hoping for another strong showing in the Northern Trust Open to climb into the top 10. Matsuyama tied for 23rd in his first start at Riviera two years ago and he closed with a 4-under-par 67 last year to finish in a tie for fourth, one stroke out of the playoff in which James Hahn defeated Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey of England.

4. Justin Rose, England -- Getting a relatively late start to 2016, Rose missed the cut in the Farmers Insurance Open, but then bounced back with a tie for sixth in his first appearance in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last week. Those results came after he got the wrap-around season off to a solid start with a tie for sixth in the Frys.com Open in October. Rose, ranked No. 7 in the world, is making his 10th start in the Northern Trust Open and he has yet to really figure out Riviera, as his only top-10 finish there was a tie for ninth in 2011 and he also tied for 13th the next year before missing the cut in 2014. He skipped the tournament last year because of an injury to his right wrist.

5. Bubba Watson, United States -- After getting off to a good start in 2016 with a tie for 10th in the Hyundai Tournament a Champions and a tie for 16th in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Bubba shot 74 in the third round last week at Pebble Beach and missed the 54-hole cut. He will try to get back on track this week and Riviera might be the right place for that, as he closed with 64-64 two years ago to win the Northern Trust Open by two strokes over Dustin Johnson. Watson, who is No. 6 in the World Golf Rankings, also played that well as recently as December, when he shot 63-66 on the weekend to win the unofficial Hero World Challenge against a strong field.

6. Adam Scott, Australia -- Scott will try to get a jump-start to 2016 when he plays this week in the Northern Trust Open, after tying for 56th at the Sony Open in Hawaii in his only start of the year. Scott, down to No. 19 in the rankings, did get the wrap-around season off to a strong start when he finished second in the CIMB Classic in November, closing with a 63 to finish one stroke behind first-time winner Justin Thomas. Scott, who seems to be making progress in his switch back to the short putter, won the 2005 Northern Trust Open in a playoff with Chad Campbell after it was shortened to an unofficial 36 holes by rain, finished second the next year and tied for 10th in 2013.

7. Dustin Johnson, United States -- Even though he has yet to really hit his stride in the early stages of 2016, DJ will be one of the favorites this week at Riviera, where he has done everything except win. He will be making his ninth start in the Northern Trust Open and has placed in the top 10 on five occasions, including second the last two years. In 2014, he finished two strokes behind Bubba Watson, and last year he lost when James Hahn made a 25-foot putt on the third playoff hole. Johnson failed to break 70 in any of his fourth rounds while tying for 41st last week at Pebble Beach, two weeks after he played the weekend in 74-80 to slide to a tie for 18th after being in contention in the Farmers Insurance Open.

8. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa -- After his start to 2016 was short-circuited by an illness that put him in the hospital, Schwartzel plays for the first time this season on the PGA Tour coming off an eight-stroke victory last week in the Tshwane Open for his 11th European Tour title. And there are reasons to believe he could keep it going this week in the Northern Trust Open. This will be his fourth start at Riviera, and even though he stumbled to a tie for 41st last year, he also tied for third in 2013 and finished solo fifth a year later, breaking 70 in seven of the first eight rounds he played at "Hogan's Alley." Schwartzel also won the Alfred Dunhill Championship in November and has finished in the top 10 in his last four starts.

9. Jason Dufner, United States -- Thanks to a strong start to the season, including his fourth PGA Tour victory last month in the CareerBuilder Challenge and two other top-10s, Duf enters the Northern Trust Open at eighth in the FedEx Cup standings. However, he is coming off a tie for 51st last week in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and surprisingly has never played very well at Riviera. The 2013 PGA champion is one of the best ball-strikers around and "Hogan's Alley" should be made to order for him, but his best result in five appearances was a tie for 29th in 2011, and he has missed the cut twice. With his game, he figures to play well there sometime, and this could be the week if he can regain the magic he had in the California Desert.

10. Bill Haas, United States -- After finishing in the top 10 in two of his last three tournaments on the West Coast Swing, Haas comes to Riviera, where in 2012 he claimed perhaps the most impressive of his six PGA Tour titles other than his victory in the 2011 Tour Championship. He reeled off scores of 68-68-69 in the last three rounds of the Northern Trust Open and then took down Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, the reigning PGA champion, with a 45-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole. Haas seemed to be on his way to a repeat when he took a three-stroke lead to the final round a year later, but he closed with a 74 and tied for third, one shot out of the playoff in which John Merrick beat Charlie Beljan.

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