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Alexander: Even with star-laden field, grinders are in the hunt at Riviera

Max Homa, left, and Keith Mitchell check the lie of the green on the 9th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa reads the lie of the green on the second hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm hits out of the rough near the cart path on the second hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm hits out of deep rough on the third hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa reads the lie of the green on the second hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm watches his tee shot on the third hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm gets guidance on a ball drop near the cart path on the second hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Keith Mitchell takes a look at his chip shot on the second hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa tees off on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm chips onto the 2nd hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Keith Mitchell checks the pin before hitting out of a sand trap on the 4th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa reads the lie of the green on the second hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm checks the lie of the green on the 5th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Keith Mitchell tees off on the 5th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm tees off on the 5th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm watches his chip shot on the 2nd hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Collin Morikawa tees off on the 6th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Keith Mitchell hits out of a sand trap on the 4th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa tees off on the 5th hole as Keith Mitchell and Jon Rahm look on during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm putts on the 5th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa putts on the second hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Keith Mitchell consults with his caddy before his tee shot on on the 5th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 12th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa chips on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm hits from the fairway on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm acknolwedges the crowd after getting a birdie on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Tiger Woods tees off on the 11th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Tiger Woods hits from the fairway on the 11th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm hits a fairway shot on the 8th hole hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa hits from the fairway on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm hits from the fairway on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm putts for a birdie on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa chips on the 8th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Crowds swarm to see Tiger Woods during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Tiger Woods hits from the fairway on the 11th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Tiger Woods checks the fairway on the 11th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Collin Morikawa tees off on the 5th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Tiger Woods wets his glove before teeing off on the 12th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Tiger Woods hits from the fairway on the 11th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm is greeted by fans after getting a birdie on the 18th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. Rahm leads the field with -15 going into the final round on Sunday. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Max Homa is greeted by fans after finishing the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. Homa is is second place at -12, Jon Rahm leads the field with -15 going into the final round on Sunday. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Jon Rahm raises his club and the crowd cheers after putting for a birdie on the 18th hole during the third round at the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club Saturday, February 18, 2023. Rahm leads the field with -15 going into the final round on Sunday. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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PACIFIC PALISADES – The PGA Tour’s new “designated tournament” format, with increased purses and an emphasis on gathering the marquee names in one place at the same time, would seem to be very good for the tour’s haves and not so great for it’s have-a-littles.

But so far this week at Riviera Keith Mitchell has been the equivalent of a gate-crasher. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Rory McIlroy noted, as mentioned here earlier in the week, that while the format of herding the stars into specific high-profile tournaments might be seen as benefiting only certain players or certain events, the ultimate effect would be to lift all boats.

And on a tour where all it takes is the hot hand over one weekend to transform a season, and maybe even a career, grinders such as Mitchell can have their star turn.

The 31-year-old from Chattanooga, Tenn., by way of the University of Georgia, has one Tour victory in his five-plus seasons, the 2019 Honda Classic. He has career earnings of $10.6 million and is 62nd in the FedEx Cup standings, with two top-10 finishes and eight cuts made in his first 10 events this season.

The California segment of the circuit that concludes this weekend has been particularly good to him. He tied for 22nd at The American Express at La Quinta, skipped Torrey Pines, but tied for fourth at the AT&T Pebble Beach pro-am two weeks ago (while not only wearing CBS’ live mic for a hole but taking a shot at Aaron Rodgers’ handicap, which may or may not be inflated and, Mitchell felt, cost him and Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen the pro-am championship.)

This week he’s getting some more quality TV time because of his play. He spent Saturday hanging with Max Homa and Jon Rahm at the top of the leaderboard, the grinder matching shots with guys who have already hoisted trophies multiple times this season.

Mitchell’s was a steady round, the only real blemish a putt that lipped out on 18 for his only bogey of the day and left him at 11-under, four shots back of Rahm. He’s had back-to-back 69s following a 7-under 64 in Thursday’s opening round, assuring that he’ll be in the final group with Rahm and Homa Sunday.

“Really the only two mistakes I made all day were the drive on 17 (into the right bunker, from which he saved par on the 570-yard par-5) … (and) I thought I hit an OK putt on 18,” Mitchell said. “We tried to play it right center. It kind of hit the right center of the hole and just lipped out to the left.

“To play 16 good holes without making a mistake is really all you’re looking for in the last group on Saturday. Jon played amazing, so I’m going to have to really do something special tomorrow to catch up to him.”

Nor is Mitchell alone in his grinder status among the top 14 on the leaderboard. Adam Svensson, Tom Hoge, J.J. Spaun and Will Zalatoris have one career victory apiece, with Hoge in his eighth full season on tour and Spaun his seventh. Denny McCarthy (sixth season) hasn’t won yet, nor have Pepperdine’s Sahith Theegala or Lee Hodges, both in their second seasons.

They, of course, operate in relative peace and quiet while guys like Rahm, McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and – naturally – Tiger Woods draw the attention, as was the case Saturday. So maybe it is a case of sneaking up on the stars.

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The changes in the PGA Tour, including the designated tournament concept and elevated purses, were a direct result of the competition from the LIV tour. It was a year ago at this tournament that the talk and speculation about the breakaway tour, and who might be enticed to jump ship, was reaching a fever pitch.

This year it’s calmer.

“What was being talked about has happened,” said Adam Scott, the chairman of the PGA Tour’s Players Advisory Council, earlier in the week. “The landscape has changed a little bit, there’s been some significant changes at the top level of the pro game. I don’t really think we’ve seen how it’s all going to shake out yet, I think we’ve got to have a longer-term outlook to see. I’ve kind of taken the view that I think eventually positives will come from it all even though it’s fairly turbulent waters at the moment.

“… The Tour is not going to be able to be all things to all people. It just can’t. I think the best thing we can do now is establish a good balance between what the top players have been pushing for and what the membership should be as a whole. I think that’s very achievable, I don’t think it’s unreasonable, but getting that balance right is going to take a little bit of time and finessing.”

That balance is modified by the any-given-week nature of the tour, where one week could provide the spark that helps vault you to the next level. Consider that Homa had one career victory when he won this tournament two years ago in a playoff with Tony Finau. Now he’s won six, two this year, and is within striking distance in, essentially, his hometown event going into Sunday even though Rahm will take a 4-shot lead into the day.

Mitchell was asked after his Thursday round about his thoughts on designated tournaments and the like and said, “I’ll probably pass on that question.”

He was asked if he wanted to expand on that Saturday, after three days around the top of the leaderboard.

“I’m probably gonna pass,” he said again.

Might as well let his clubs do the talking.

jalexander@scng.com

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