LOS ANGELES — The golf tournament at Riviera Country Club didn’t need an extra bump. With one of the best golf courses on tour as the canvas, the best golfer of his generation as the host and an iconic city as the backdrop, this event already enjoyed status as one of the elite stops on the PGA Tour schedule.
No, the Genesis didn’t need a bump. But it got one anyway.
The tournament formerly known as the Genesis Open is making its debut this week as the Genesis Invitational, a switch that’s more than simply cosmetic. First, the tangible changes: a reduced field size from 144 to 120; a three-year tour exemption for the winner, rather than the usual two-year pass; and a $1.9 million increase in the purse to $9.3 million, including a $1.674 million winner’s check.
On a more symbolic note, the Genesis joins the Memorial Tournament, hosted by Jack Nicklaus, and the Arnold Palmer Invitational as PGA Tour events with “elevated status.” Now Tiger’s tournament, Jack’s tournament and Arnie’s tournament stand above the rest. Sounds about right.
“The criteria for Invitationals—you have to have at least 60 wins,” Woods joked to Golf Digest. He has 82 PGA Tour titles, tied with Sam Snead for the all-time record, while Nicklaus has 73 and Palmer 62.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have the Invitational status,” Woods said. “It’s only going to make our field better, our tournament better and a better experience for the fans.”
Yes, Woods and tournament organizers knew the Invitational bump would attract a stronger field. But the players assembled outside L.A. in Pacific Palisades this week appear ready to surpass even their most optimistic expectations. Each of the top five players in the world—new No. 1 Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson—and nine of the top 10 will compete this week. The tournament winner is projected to receive 70 World Ranking points, which would be more than the winner in every non-major, non-Players and non-WGC event received last season, including the Memorial and the API.
“It’s really special,” said tournament director Mike Antolini, “when you think about the history of professional golf in L.A., going back more than 90 years with the L.A. Open, and how this tournament has evolved. Even in the last couple years, since Genesis has come on board in 2017 and Tiger assuming the host role in 2016, and now to be elevated among Jack and Arnie’s event—I think it speaks to Tiger’s legacy and everything that he’s done for the game.”
And also everything he’s done outside the game. The Genesis Invitational benefits the TGR Foundation, Woods’ charity initiative that recently surpassed the significant milestone of reaching more than 1 million children in its mission to make STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula, college-access programs and educator professional development available to children around the globe.
“Of course, the Genesis is a fundraiser—it’ll help raise money and underwrite some of the work we do,” said Rick Singer, president and CEO of the TGR Foundation. “Clearly, that’s important. But more so for us, we meet so many people through the golf tournament—through the pro-am, people coming on site—that are very like-minded with us in terms of what they want to do for underserved kids. The ability to meet them enables us to find other donors and volunteers. It really becomes an important part of our whole outreach program.”
There’s also the marketing aspect of the tournament. “Tiger will be interviewed several times during the week, he’ll be on network TV,” Singer said. “Last year, at the Hero World Challenge [which also benefits TGR], he gave a great interview where he was able to talk about what we’re doing, us reaching a million kids, new programs. That creates some great publicity. For us, it’s about getting more engagement from teachers and getting more people interested in what we’re doing. Having Tiger Woods talk about it on national TV is a pretty good way of doing that.”
Woods takes as much pride in his philanthropic achievements as his athletic ones. Singer said Woods has told him he believes, when all is said and done, that he’ll be remembered more for what he has done for underserved children than what he accomplished on the golf course.
“To have so many first-gens go off to college—then they come back and they’re the leaders of their community,” Woods said. “No one expected anyone in their community to go to college. And these kids go to Harvard and Princeton, Yale, Brown. You start meeting these kids who never ever thought they would go to college. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
Woods’ association with Riviera is a natural one. It was the site of his first PGA Tour start, as a wiry 16-year-old in 1992. And it’s something of a home game for him—Woods’ alma mater, Western High School, is an extremely traffic-dependent hour-ish trip from Riviera. (That traffic is the reason Woods says he played more golf growing up in the San Diego area than the Los Angeles gridlock. “Avoid the 405 and 101 at all costs,” he said with a smile).
Yet in terms of on-course success, Riviera has proven to be one of few courses that Woods has yet to conquer. Twelve times he has teed it up at the kikuyu-covered George Thomas gem, and 12 times he has gone home without the trophy. It’s the most starts he has made on a tour course without a victory.
“I just really haven’t played it that well,” Woods said. Which, of course is all relative—Woods finished runner-up in 1999 and has seven other top-20 finishes here, including a T-15 last year. “It sets up perfect for a guy who hits a high cut. That’s my shot! Just unfortunately haven’t played that well.”
The good news for Woods is he comes into this week in good form—he won the Zozo Championship in October, went 3-0-0 as a playing-captain at the Presidents Cup in December and took T-9 at his last start at the Farmers Insurance Open. He’s also well-rested after two weeks away from tournament play. A win this week would be the 83rd of his PGA Tour career, his 15th in the state of California and his fourth since returning from spinal fusion surgery.
It would also make him the first champion of the Genesis Invitational.