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MANY IN FIELD HAVE CONQUERED RIVIERA.

Byline: Kevin Acee Daily News Staff Writer

The locals have conceded.

The groundskeeper says the tournament is Tiger's to lose. The teaching pro agrees.

``Tiger has to be the favorite,'' said Riviera head professional Mike Miller. ``He's the best player in the world right now.''

Tiger Woods, the 21 year old from Cypress who has swooshed onto the PGA Tour, won three times in 11 starts and given golf a trendy new life, is without a doubt the headliner in a field of 144 that begins play Thursday in the Nissan Open.

The tournament, being staged for the 71st year and the 14th straight year at Riviera, runs through Sunday.

The purse is a record $1.4 million, an increase of $200,000 from what was doled out in both 1995 and '96. The winner gets $252,000. Second place is worth $151,200.

Hold that Tiger talk for just a second, though. Before the winner's check is made out to Woods, take a look at the rest of the field. (For the record, Woods has played in two Nissan Opens, missing the cut in 1992 and '93.)

Whoever wins, he likely won't wrap it up Thursday. Only three times, and not since Lloyd Mangrum in 1953, has a player been the outright wire-to-wire leader at Riviera.

The pros love to call Riviera a shotmaker's course. There are no gimmicks to the 6,946-yard layout, but bad shots are usually severely punished.

And Woods isn't the only shotmaker in town this week.

Back to defend his 1996 title is former USC star Craig Stadler. Corey Pavin, the UCLA alumnus who won here in '94 and '95, would never miss an event at Riviera. And Fred Couples, who has won twice and finished second twice since 1990, should be all over Woods like so many shoemaker's logos.

Riviera is the last event on the West Coast before the tour heads to Florida, so some of the big names won't make it - Mark Calcavecchia and Tom Lehman among them. But Mark O'Meara, who has won twice already this year, will play this week. Also on a roll is Jay Don Blake, who hasn't won since 1991 but has finished near the top twice this year. Duffy Waldorf, who hails from Valencia, where the Nissan Open will be held in 1998, is playing well this year.

Due in part to its location on the schedule and that the same big names usually skip it, Riviera seems always to have the same players on its leader boards.

Stadler finished tied for fourth in 1995 before winning last year. Scott Simpson finished tied for fourth in '95 and tied for second last year. Fred Couples has come in second three of the past four years.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 26, 1997
Words:460
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