By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Fred Couples will add another chapter to his long love affair with Riviera Country Club when he extends his record number of Northern Trust Open starts to 32 at the fabled venue this week.
Couples eclipsed the previous mark of 30, first set by fellow American Gene Littler, when he played in the PGA Tour event last year and he was delighted to gain a spot in the 2014 edition via a sponsor's exemption.
"I'm lucky, this is my favorite tournament and I've played a lot of times, won a couple times," Couples, 54, told reporters after playing in the pro-am competition on Wednesday.
"Eventually I won't play in this and I'll watch the tournament as much as I can. I live a mile from here. But right now, I've played well here this morning. My goal is to try to hang with these guys.
"I have a great pairing tomorrow with Jordan (Spite) and Webb Simpson so it's very exciting for me with that pairing. We'll see what happens."
Former Masters champion Couples, who was the winner at Riviera in 1990 and 1992, was scheduled to tee off in Thursday's opening round from the first hole with fellow Americans Simpson and Spieth.
Asked to assess his expectations for the week, the laid-back American with the honey-smooth swing replied: "I do expect to play well, I really do. It's my favorite course, I still hit the ball pretty far and I seem to be putting well.
"I have to keep playing well, and well might be a top-30 finish. I have a bet with a friend of mine," Couples said. "(But) I'd like to worry about winning if I play really well.
"But the greens are much faster than I'm used to, so that becomes a little bit of an issue. It just takes time to get used to greens that are rolling fast and I haven't played much this year."
Couples, who has finished runner-up at Riviera three times, loved the look of the par-71 layout from the very first time he played the course.
"I liked it from the get-go," he said. "It's just a peaceful spot. I used to live at another house close to here and moved away, and then came back.
"You know, there are great courses that people like and there are some that don't, and I don't know why anyone would not like this course. It's just the perfect layout. It's very fair."
Riviera is renowned for being a shot-maker's course and Couples, when in his prime, was widely regarded as one of the best iron players on tour.
With its small greens and clever bunkering, the par-71 layout challenges every type of player.
"I personally think it's one of our top three courses on tour, I really do," said Couples. "I've played every year here because I want to play and I enjoy it."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Larry Fine)