PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | Gaze long enough at the big sycamore to the left of Riviera Country Club’s 12th green and it’s not difficult to imagine seeing Humphrey Bogart standing there, watching golf as he did years ago.
Wander through the clubhouse where photographs and artifacts keep alive days gone by and they’re all there, from Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (they filmed Pat and Mike at Riviera) to Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods.
And if you could get an invitation, Mel Brooks and Larry David are among the people whose homes border Riviera, which hosts the Genesis Invitational this week.
The magic of the place is the golf course, laid across a virtually flat piece of land not far from Sunset Boulevard. Designed by George Thomas and William Bell, Riviera opened for play in 1927 and nearly a century later, it remains unconquered by the modern technology that has rendered other Golden Age designs antiquated.
Through the years, Riviera has evolved as golf courses do, getting stretched here and tugged there, but it remains essentially the same layout it has always been. The bunkers, the most eye-catching feature of Riviera, are deeper than Thomas designed them and at 7,322 yards this week, it’s a longer course than it used to be.
It is not extraordinarily long by modern standards, the rough is noticeable but not severe and its greens are on the smallish size but not miniscule. In an age when aggressive golf feels like a way of life on the PGA Tour, the scoring record for what was originally called the Los Angeles Open hasn’t changed since Lanny Wadkins shot 20-under par here 35 years ago.
“It’s a proper design.” – Adam Scott
Has Riviera managed to withstand the test of time?
“It has and it hasn’t,” Tiger Woods said. “We’ve lengthened (No.) 12, redone (No.) 8, they’ve moved a few tees back. Yes, the alleyways are still the same, but when they moved No. 12 back, what, 70 yards, it used to be just a 1-iron and a wedge and now you’re hitting driver and 4-iron.
“There have been some holes that they’re able to extend, but for the most part the confines are what they are here. So, where they’ve tried to add distance, they have, but there’s really nowhere to go.”
In the words of Adam Scott, “It’s a proper design.”
Despite not having a water hazard, Riviera has a collection of distinctive and memorable holes, starting with the relatively short par-5 first hole that begins with an elevated tee shot that gives golfers the sense of playing from a cliff’s edge.
Hogan, who won the 1948 U.S. Open here, called the par-3 fourth, with its Redan-like green, the best par-3 in golf.
The par-3 sixth features a pot bunker in the middle of the putting surface, the par-4 eighth has a ribbon-like barranca splitting the fairway, the par-3 16th is gorgeous, framed by stark white sycamores, and the uphill 18th is a brute of a finishing hole.
And then there’s the drivable par-4 10th hole, perhaps the most challenging 315 yards in golf. For architecture nerds, it could be the subject of a doctoral thesis. For professionals, the difference between making 3 and 6 can be as slender as a 7-iron.
This week, nine of the top 10 players in the world ranking are at Riviera, and not just because it fits in their schedules and Woods is the tournament host. The golf course, which Scott said demands quality approach shots, is a big part of it.
“I just like it because it really penalizes bad golf shots,” Brooks Koepka said. “You look at 10, if you put it in the wrong spot, you’re struggling to make par. There are quite a few holes out there where driving it in the fairway is a premium. There are also holes you should be able to get.
“These par-5s, unless you’re playing in the morning, are gettable. Then you’ve just got a bunch of tough holes. You put it on the right side of (No.) 2, you probably aren’t going to have a shot. There’s a spot to miss and a spot not to miss.”
Over the last eight years, the average winning score at Riviera has been approximately 12-under par. At some tour spots, players go that low in one day.
Among Riviera’s challenges are greens that have become firmer in recent years. They aren’t easy to putt, in part because of the bumpy nature of poa annua surfaces, and also because there’s a gentle pull toward the Pacific Ocean about one mile west of the club.
Similar to how the island-like 17th green defines the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, the 10th hole at Riviera is its most provocative challenge. It stands as proof that distance isn’t necessary to create great holes.
Power helps at the 10th but only if players are comfortable feathering drivers into a skinny green that slopes away from the tee.
Hammering a tee shot into one of the deep greenside bunkers doesn’t promise anything but hard work. It’s the same with laying up off the tee, which leaves a wedge shot into a green that looks like a kitchen table.
“This is possibly the best drivable par-4 in the world,” Rory McIlroy said. “It’s just as easy to make a 6 as it is to make a 3, but all the statistics suggest that if you do go for the green, you’re going to play the hole .3 of a shot lower than if you lay up. All the statistics suggest that it’s a hole to go for.”
Unless you’re Justin Thomas.
“I’ve always laid up on that hole,” Thomas said. “I’ll go for it to that front pin, but I’ve laid up ever since I’ve been on tour. The way I look at it is I try to make par on the hole and if I happen to make one birdie, then I beat the field for the week, I would think.”
At Riviera, the charm and challenge endure – as time goes by.
The par-3 sixth hole at Riviera Country Club is shown in 1934. Photo: Courtesy USGA Museum
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