By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - The fact that British world number three Luke Donald heads the strongest PGA Tour field of the year at this week's Northern Trust Open should come as no surprise given the popularity of the venue.
The par-71 layout at iconic Riviera Country Club, with its long established links to the movie stars of Hollywood, has long been regarded by the players as one of the top courses on the U.S. circuit.
At 7,349 yards off the back tees, it is not especially long by modern standards but it repeatedly offers a variety of options for shot selection and boasts some of the shrewdest bunkering around.
A glance at the list of former winners proves the fairness of the challenge posed by Riviera, where relatively short hitters such as Mike Weir (twice) and big boomers like Phil Mickelson (also twice) have triumphed.
"It's a real classic of its type," British Open champion Ernie Els, winner here in 1999, said on Tuesday while preparing for Thursday's opening round. "The angles they have with the greens, the way the course flows, it's just fantastic.
"Riviera also has some of the best bunkering you'll see anywhere in the world. Even if I hadn't had a victory here, this would still be one of my favorite golf courses on the PGA Tour."
South African Els said he could not wish for a more ideal venue than Riviera to make his first appearance on the U.S. circuit this year.
"I'm excited about being back here," the 43-year-old added. "It's not been the best start to my year, to be honest, so let's see if we can step things up a bit and play some good golf. Not many better places than Riviera to do that!"
In his three appearances on the European Tour this year, Els finished joint 18th at the Volvo Golf Champions, tied for 39th at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and placed a distant 73rd at the Qatar Masters.
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.
Triple major winner Padraig Harrington of Ireland will be making his seventh consecutive start at the Northern Trust Open this week at a venue he relished playing when he first saw it.
"It's one of my favorite golf courses of the year," the 41-year-old Dubliner told reporters on a glorious, sun-splashed afternoon at Riviera. "It's a joy to play. I think we'd love to play golf courses like this all the time.
"It is consistent from year to year. We do know what to expect. There is a lot of familiarity ... a lot of local knowledge on the golf course.
"You've got to know where you can and can't miss some of these greens, because a lot of the difficulty, especially on the weekend, is down to the pin positions, the speed and the slope in the greens."
Twelve of the world's top 20 are competing at Riviera this week, including number three Donald, seventh-ranked Australian Adam Scott, eighth-ranked Briton Lee Westwood and Masters champion Bubba Watson (ninth).
Bill Haas will defend the title he won 12 months ago in a sudden-death playoff with fellow Americans Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, sealing victory in stunning fashion when he sank a curling 43-foot birdie putt at the second extra hole.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Peter Rutherford)