PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - While U.S. Open champion Justin Rose is champing at the bit to play his first competitive golf of the year, Jimmy Walker will look to maintain his sizzling form at this week’s Northern Trust Open.
English world number five Rose, who heads a strong field at Riviera Country Club, has been recovering from tendinitis in his right shoulder and is eager to test his game in tournament conditions as he launches his 2014 campaign.
“I’m feeling good,” Rose told reporters while preparing for Thursday’s opening round on the iconic par-71 course laid out in the Santa Monica Canyon. “A lot of hard work went into me being here.
“It was a race against time to really get back playing. I’ve only really been hitting balls, drivers, for about a week, 10 days now, so it really has been down to the wire. It was important for me to get out and play some competitive golf.”
Asked to assess the state of his game, Rose replied: “My game’s felt really good at home. I’m swinging it really nicely and everything technically looks really good.
“Had an opportunity to spend a lot of time on my short game, but when you get a scorecard in your hand everything is a little different.”
Rose, who believes his tendinitis set in after he threw a golf ball to his caddie 70 yards back down the fairway during the Barclays tournament in August, has always enjoyed competing at Riviera, despite never finishing better than joint ninth.
“I’ve never really contended to win because I’ve never been able to put four rounds together here,” said Rose, whose tie for ninth in 2011 was his only top-10 at Riviera in eight previous starts.
“I’ve had all the numbers but I’ve never put four (good ones) together. But it is a course I enjoy. It’s a course that suits my eye, and hopefully four rounds can be strung together this week.”
Like Rose, red-hot Walker loves Riviera and he will be bidding for his fourth victory of the season when he tees off on Thursday in the company of fellow Americans Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley.
“I’ve been playing really well,” said Walker, who won the season-opening Frys.com Open in October before adding further victories at the Sony Open in January and last week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
“Been playing real well for the last couple years and just biding my time, waiting around and good stuff happened. The season that I’m having so far, it’s really cool.
“People in the past have told me, you’re due ... I always felt like I believed, but just needed some validation. Now that I’ve had some, I really look forward to having the chance to get in the hunt and play.”
Walker, who has been working with celebrated swing coach Butch Harmon since early last year, liked the look of Riviera from the very first moment he stepped on to the first tee.
“You look down and see the first hole, and the whole golf course is just right in one area,” he smiled. “It’s really cool. Just something about the golf course. I really enjoy playing it.
“I love walking through the clubhouse and seeing all the old pictures of all the great players who have come through here and played.”
At 7,349 yards off the back tees, Riviera is not especially long by modern standards but it offers a variety of options for shot selection and boasts some of the shrewdest bunkering around.
Located just off Sunset Boulevard, Riviera hosted the U.S. Open in 1948 and the PGA Championship in 1983 and 1995, and has a long association with nearby Hollywood.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, the course hosted the Los Angeles Open, which in those days was considered one of the PGA Tour’s premier events.
Actors such as Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Mary Pickford, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn flocked to the club to watch the professionals compete and the layout has long been regarded as one of the top courses on the U.S. circuit.
Rose and American world number nine Matt Kuchar head the field this week at Riviera where six other players ranked in the top 20 will be competing. John Merrick defends the title he won last year in a playoff with fellow American Charlie Beljan.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Larry Fine