By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Los Angeles traffic is perhaps the most congested of any PGA Tour venue but that has not stopped a quality field from flowing into the Riviera Country Club for this week's Northern Trust Open.
The iconic par-71 layout, with its long established links to the movie stars of Hollywood, is consistently ranked by the players as one of the top courses on the U.S. circuit where long, medium and short hitters can all thrive.
British world number one Luke Donald, making his first start on the 2012 PGA Tour, heads a strong entry this week at Riviera where 11 other players ranked in the top 20 will be competing.
"It's always a great event to come to," three-times major winner Ernie Els of South Africa told reporters Tuesday. "It's a wonderful golf course and they've got it in great shape now.
"I've played Riviera a lot over the years and it's one of those classic old golf courses that I could never tire of playing. Riviera is a real ball striker's golf course."
Els, champion here in 1999, enjoyed the 7,349-yard, tree-lined Riviera layout the very first time he played the course.
"I love the bunkering, it's phenomenal," the former world number one said. "I love the angles they have with their greens, the way the course flows. You've got to draw a lot of shots, fade a lot of shots.
"I like the fact that there's not too much elevation change other than the first and 18th. But the greens are fairly small, so you've got to be accurate with your iron shots. If you miss a shot, you're going to be penalised with the bunkers there."
Spaniard Sergio Garcia, also making his first appearance on the 2012 PGA Tour this week, has not always been able to compete at Riviera because of scheduling difficulties.
"Fortunately I'm starting (on the PGA Tour) a little bit earlier than last year, which is a good thing," said the 32-year-old Spaniard, who has often played instead on the European Tour's "Desert Swing," the season-opening events in the Middle East.
"I love this course. It's one of my favorites on Tour and I've always enjoyed Riviera. It's a bit of a shame that I wasn't able to come and play more often."
Phil Mickelson, champion here in 2008 and 2009, has always relished the challenge of the classic Riviera layout that winds its way through the Santa Monica Canyon.
"The golf course is one of the best we have on tour," said the American world number 11, who clinched his 40th PGA Tour title at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Sunday.
"It is such a visually stimulating course and a very challenging shot-making course."
Riviera, which hosted the U.S. Open in 1948 and the PGA Championship in 1983 and 1995, is located just off Sunset Boulevard 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 Katherine Hepburn flocked to the club to watch the professionals compete.
The par-four 12th has a large sycamore guarding the left side of the green named Bogey's Tree in honor of former member Humphrey Bogart.
Riviera will forever be nicknamed "Hogan's Alley" in honor of the two Los Angeles Opens and the 1948 U.S. Open won here by golfing great Ben Hogan.
Apart from Donald, the other top-10 players competing this week are Australians Jason Day (seventh) and Adam Scott (eighth) and big-hitting American Dustin Johnson (10th).
Australian Aaron Baddeley defends the title he won by two shots last year.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Ian Ransom)