By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Fred Couples will set a tournament record with his 31st appearance at the Northern Trust Open when he tees off in Thursday's opening round, and he could not wish for a more perfect setting.
The laid-back American with the honey-smooth swing has long been a fan of Riviera Country Club where he has won the PGA Tour event twice and finished runner-up three times.
"It is probably my favorite golf tournament to play in," former Masters champion Couples, 53, told reporters after playing in the tournament's pro-am competition on Wednesday.
"I've had a lot of great finishes here and a lot of close chances to win even more than the two times that I've won, and those were great weeks."
Couples will eclipse the 30 tournament starts made by fellow American Gene Littler at Riviera when he sets off on Thursday in the high-profile company of Masters champion Bubba Watson and British world number eight Lee Westwood.
"That's exciting," Couples, who for a few years lived just a mile from Riviera, said of his grouping. "I'm a little rusty but I'm looking very much forward to playing in this event."
Asked what he would have thought as a rookie if someone had told him he would play in a single PGA Tour event more than 30 times, Couples concedes he would have been skeptical.
"I would have probably said, 'Yeah sure, sure,'" he replied. "In 1981, if you would have said that, 'Would you like to play here several years in a row?', I would have said, 'Yes, 31' I would laugh."
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, who was champion here in 1990 and 1992. "I think the TPC (Sawgrass) in Jacksonville is up there, and Memorial is one of my all-time favorite courses.
"But I put this one amongst those three, and obviously when you pick majors, it's a different story. Augusta (National) is my all-time favorite. I've played every year here because I want to play and I enjoy it."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Peter Rutherford)