For decades the L.A. Open was one of the most exclusive events on the PGA Tour, with a star-studded field at the iconic Riviera Country Club. It’s where the stars hung out. Humphrey Bogart was a member and Mark Wahlberg, Adam Sandler and Larry David all routinely tee it up at “The Riv.”
Now known as the Genesis Invitational, the event has continued to thrive. So much so that it’s been elevated to Invitational status, with Tiger Woods playing host. The tournament is now in line with The Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Memorial Tournament (Jack Nicklaus) as the three non-majors with more on the line than any others on the season schedule.
When asked what their favorite tournament of the year is, Tour pros often say it’s the Genesis. And who can blame them? While much of the country is freezing its tail off in February, they’re golfing in Southern California.
With that professional knowledge in mind, the decision to fly to L.A. and play in the Genesis Invitational Pro-Am was a no brainer. Or in golf terms, a six-inch gimme putt. PGA Tour Pro-Ams happen pretty much every week in non-majors. The day before the tournament begins, Tour pros are paired up with a group of amateurs to play the course. Covering the PGA Tour for the last two decades, I’ve been around dozens of Pro-Ams. I’ve watched them and talked with pros about them, but have never actually played in one. That all changed at Riviera.
It all began in Santa Monica, Calif., at the Genesis Invitational Pro-Am party. This is where I’d find out who I was playing with. Paired with fellow amateurs Paige Spiranac and Jim Trainor, we looked over the rundown of professionals who were in the field and put together a wish list.
The way it works is that each amateur team is assigned a number, one through 70. Once your number is called, you have one minute to decide which of the remaining tour pros you would like to play with. It’s like a fantasy draft, only you get to spend the day with your player.
The word on the street is that 90% of the pro-am draw is random, with a few teams already selected to play with stars like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. But with the Genesis featuring a loaded field, filled with nine of the top-10 players in the world, there were plenty of big names to choose from.
Our team was No. 45, and as we waited and saw some of our wish list players taken off the board, we decided to zone in on golfers who we knew were nice guys and we’d have a good time with on the course. After an excruciating wait, our number was finally called. We collectively chose Jason Kokrak.
Kokrak is one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour, averaging 306 yards per drive last season. He ended 2019 as the 62nd ranked player in the world after a successful run through the Fed Ex Cup playoffs and a ninth-place finish in the Tour Championship. I interviewed Kokrak a few years back and knew two things for certain: 1) we would be amazed by the way he drives the golf ball, and 2) he was one of the nicest guys on the Tour.
Our team was set, and our tee time was 7:50 a.m. off the 10th tee. The only thing I had to worry about was my swing, which led to a restless night’s sleep.
Wednesday 5:50 a.m.
Figuring I wanted to soak in the entire pro-am experience, and the fact that I couldn’t sleep, I arrived at Riviera early on Wednesday morning, long before sunrise. In fact, the practice greens and driving range at Riviera were illuminated by flood lights until the sun peaked its head around 6:30 a.m.
Two hours before tee off afforded me plenty of time to loosen up my achy back, hit a few putts, and see Tiger Woods tee off at 6:40 a.m. Even the GOAT was up early teeing it up alongside the amateurs, though Condoleezza Rice is hardly an amateur.
After watching Tiger blast one down the first fairway it was time to try and find my game. As a Pro-Am participant you go where the pros go, which means you have access to the roped off walkways, as well as the putting green and driving range.
It was around 48 degrees before sun up in Pacific Palisades, so it took a while to loosen up on the Riviera range. Oh, did I mention I was hitting balls next to actor Chris Pratt? Only in Hollywood!
After warming up, my caddy Brian and I trucked over to the practice green. That’s where the Pro-Am experience really kicked in. I was practicing putts next to Rory McIlroy and chatting it up with Justin Thomas on the green. The only difference between us was their putts were rolling in the hole.
Wednesday 7:50 a.m.
Off we went to the 10th tee, which is where we met our pro Jason Kokrak. He was even bigger than I remembered. Kokrak stands 6'4" and was a basketball player in high school. After shaking hands, he stepped up to the drivable par 4 and sent his Titleist skyrocketing into orbit with a metal wood. That’s right the 315-yard hole was too short for Kokrak’s driver, so instead he blasted a 3-wood, knocking his tee shot on the green within 25 feet of the hole.
Now it was my turn. After hearing my name announced to a small gallery of spectators, I took a deep breath, teed it up and let 'er rip. The ball started left center of the fairway, faded five to 10 yards, and ended up rolling a few feet into the rough, about 265 yards out. All things considered it was a darn good tee shot.
Strolling down the Riviera fairways a random thought came to mind: I’ve never seen so many cars on a golf course. Genesis is Hyundai's luxury division and as the title sponsor of the PGA Tour event, the automaker's shiny products were scattered around the course; some for sheer viewing pleasure, and others being offered up as a prize for a hole in one.
When I stepped up to the 16th tee box, a brand-new Genesis G70 looked on from a platform directly behind me. As if the thought of a hole in one wasn’t enough to rattle me, we teed off without the traditional serenity and silence of the tee box. Musician and entertainer Kelley James greeted us on the tee box with a pocketful of information on all golfers coming through. James has the amazing ability to improvise songs according to who his audience is, or in this case, the golfers teeing off in front of him.
After James harassed our pro Kokrak, he let loose on me while I teed up my ball and took practice swings. He quieted down to a whisper when I stood over my tee shot... only to start rapping as I took my club back.
Amazingly I landed my tee shot 12 feet from the hole. No hole in one, but not bad considering the peanut gallery on the tee box.
Wednesday Late Morning
A unique aspect of the pro-am experience is walking down the fairway and chatting it up with your tour pro. Kokrak is a world class golfer and an elite athlete, but he came across as extremely engaged and relatable. Kokrak played college golf at Xavier and is a huge basketball fan so we talked about the Musketeers and their Big East prospects, as well as his high school basketball career.
Even though Kokrak stands well over six feet tall, he told me he was actually too short to compete at basketball in high school. As a high school freshman, Kokrak was only 5'6". He explained how he grew 10 inches in high school and college and then took his “Freshman 15” weight gain at Xavier to a new level, calling it the “Freshman 40.”
Overall Kokrak was the perfect pro to play with and was actually complimentary toward my game, especially the way I was driving it.
Wednesday Early Afternoon
As our round was approaching its end, I’d gathered so many memorable moments and lasting images to take with me: my clutch par putt to help us pull within one stroke of the lead; the tribute to Kobe Bryant posted on the eighth tee box; my chip shot on the 18th hole that hung on the lip of the hole, drawing an “Ohhhh” from the Genesis gallery. This was a sports day I would never forget.
Our team ended up finishing tied for fourth place, two strokes off the lead. Ahead of pros like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, as well as the "Ams” like Albert Pujols and Jared Goff. The eventual winning group was led by Jon Rahm.
As our last putts hit the bottom of the cup, we went through the customary handshakes (always take your cap off like a tour pro) and then made our trek up toward the Riviera clubhouse.
I couldn’t wait for a bite and a beer, so I made a left toward the clubhouse, while Kokrak banged a right. With more work to be done, Kokrak was hitting the driving range before Thursday’s first round.
The Pro… and the Am.