Explaining Tiger Woods' odd, winless history at Riviera

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Tiger Woods returns this week to Riviera Country Club, site of his first PGA Tour appearance as an amateur 27 years ago and the place closest to his boyhood home in Southern California. The iconic venue also has yielded a surprising amount of frustration for the 80-time PGA Tour winner. Now known as the Genesis Open, Woods has 12 appearances in the event without a victory -- the most of any tournament that he has not won, surpassing nine visits to the Northern Trust (played at various courses) and five to the Honda Classic.

Although he has four top-10s at the Genesis and two second-place finishes (one came in a playoff loss at Valencia Country Club, not Riviera), the majority of Woods' run at Riviera coincided with unprecedented success everywhere else.

So what's the deal with Riviera?

"I love the golf course, I love the layout, it fits my eye and I play awful,'' Woods said last year. "It's very simple. It's just one of those weird things. It's a fader's golf course for a righty. A lot of the holes, you hit nice soft cuts and I used to love to hit nice soft cuts, and for some reason, I just didn't play well.''

Here are a few theories.

The greens

Admittedly, this is a bit of a reach. How could Tiger have difficulty on greens that are essentially the same he grew up playing? The poa annua greens at Riviera are the same surface as those of the Torrey Pines South course, where he has won eight times. (The kikuyu grass in the fairways is the same at both venues as well.) And the greens are similar to those at Pebble Beach, where Woods also has won.

But the fact is that after withdrawing from what was then the Nissan Open prior to the third round in 2006 due to illness, Woods never returned to the event until last year (he was scheduled to play in 2017), and that is due to the fact that his TGR Foundation now runs the tournament.

Although Woods never complained about the greens at Riviera, he like many players got frustrated by their bumpiness. It's simply a trait of poa annua in the winter, especially during poor weather. Woods didn't return (until 2012) to Pebble Beach, either, after 2001.

The thought was that Woods wanted to find smooth putting surfaces as soon as he could. So, in 2007, for example, after playing at Torrey Pines, he went to Dubai, the Match Play in Arizona and the lead-up to the Masters through Florida, getting off the bumpy poa quickly and presumably getting his putting stroke grooved prior to Augusta National. (Although, it is interesting to note that Woods has not won the Masters since he stopped playing at Riviera.)

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Getting on the greens

This is a far more tangible reason for Woods' relative lack of success at the tournament: Woods has hit fewer greens at the Genesis Open than any tournament in his career.

ESPN Stats & Information looked at greens in regulation information for 322 of Woods' 347 PGA Tour starts, with only his match play events and tournaments at The Open before 2003 not included.

For events with a minimum of five starts, Woods' 59.1 greens-in-regulation percentage is worse than the U.S. Open (61.5 percent) and the Honda Classic, played at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (63.2). If you throw out the one year the tournament was played at Valencia, the numbers are even worse: 57.96 percent in 11 starts at Riviera.

To take it further, Woods' worst three greens in regulation tournaments of his career came at Riviera, with just 36 percent in 1993, 39 percent in 1992 and 44 percent last year. In all three instances (and to be clear, the first two came when Woods was an amateur), he missed the cut. He also hit just 44 percent of the greens at last year's U.S. Open, tied for third worst in his career.

So how does one of the game's great iron players of all time miss so many greens? He must be missing fairways too, right? Well, not really. Of the 24 events Woods has played at least five times, Genesis ranks 12th for him in driving accuracy -- not great, but certainly not horrible. There are 11 places he has driven it worse, statistically, and yet at Riviera, he has hit the fewest greens.

Clearly, that has an impact on his success, meaning less birdie opportunities and scrambling for more pars. And Riviera's rough, at times, has been brutal, perhaps turning missed fairways into more of a liability than he has found at other courses.

A fluke?

Maybe there is simply no feasible explanation. Yes, having poor greens in regulation statistics does not help. And it doesn't take much to get off track if you are missing a few fairways, which Woods has done at times in his career, especially in wet, damp conditions that make playing from the rough more of a challenge.

And yet in 12 tournaments starts, his three missed cuts came when he was an amateur in 1992 and 1993 and again last year, when he was making just his second start after returning from spinal fusion surgery.

Starting in 1997, Woods finished tied for 20th, lost in a playoff to Billy Mayfair (at Valencia) in 1998, tied for second in 1999, tied for 18th in 2000, tied for 13th in 2001, skipped 2002, then went T-5, T-7, T-13 and WD in 2006.

That means during a nine-tournament stretch, Woods was out of the top 10 four times but never out of the top 20. He also had three top-5s.

He missed a playoff in 1999 when he bogeyed the last hole. He shot a final-round 65 in 2003. He shot a first-round 64 in 2004. His highest score at Riviera as a pro was the 76 he shot in the second round last year.

So perhaps the angle of his "poor'' record at Riviera is overblown, that Woods' career is scrutinized differently and that by his standards it appears mediocre.

However you view it, the course has clearly provided some frustration for Woods over the years.

The fact that Woods' foundation now runs the tournament and has numerous distractions off the course, along with his relative lack of success on it, makes for a unique challenge this week.