PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | This is one of those weeks in professional golf that feels almost as much about the place as about the players chasing the Genesis Invitational trophy.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit Riviera Country Club, you understand why.
If you’ve only seen it through a television screen and heard the almost rhapsodic declarations by one player or another, and you still wonder if Riviera really is all that, trust me, it is.
It’s cool without trying, imposing without being overbearing and old-school classic in all the ways that still matter.
“Everybody loves this place, I’ve never heard a bad word about it.” – Brooks Koepka
It’s like chicken parmesan, a proper Old Fashioned and slow dancing – it never goes out of style.
“Everybody loves this place, I’ve never heard a bad word about it,” Brooks Koepka said.
As golf courses go, there are few finer. It’s not the biggest or the hardest but it’s on every best-of list that matters. There’s not a water hazard on it but Riviera asks all the questions: Can you hit it high? Low? Right? Left? What to do on the short par-4 10th?
Hint: Try to drive the 10th green. Modern-day analytics have cracked the code on that hole but, like trying to buy a game with new equipment, execution remains the key to conquering Riviera.
Build a par-3 with a bunker in the middle of the green? Sounds silly until you see the sixth hole at Riviera. It’s a part of the place, like a birthmark.
If you did it at Myrtle Beach, it would come off as contrived. At Riviera, it’s like the giant white-barked sycamore trees that decorate the par-3 16th and look like something a Hollywood set decorator would select.
And speaking of Hollywood…
Technically, it’s about 12 miles east of Riviera but all it takes is a stroll through the sprawling clubhouse to be reminded of how closely the movies and the magic of the club are intertwined.
This is a different week because there are no spectators on site, leaving the fairways and famous clubhouse empty. That’s too bad considering while most of the country shivers and digs out from under ice and snow, it’s expected to be sunny and in the upper 60s at Riviera this weekend. Thursday’s perfect conditions were just an appetizer.
The course itself sits like the bottom of a fairway bunker, surrounded on all four sides by hills speckled with houses that range from grand to grander. In places, the engineering is mind-boggling, giant cement pillars dug into the base of hills to support pools and decks more than 50 feet above them.
Walk down to the 12th tee and you’re essentially in the backyard of Mel Brooks, whose most famous movie ‘Blazing Saddles’ couldn’t be made today.
Walk up the 18th hole and it’s like climbing a small mountain. When players finish, there’s still another hike up a narrow set of steps to the rambling clubhouse where, once they catch their breath, the view is part of the charm of the place.
In the clubhouse, there are displays documenting both the Hollywood history and the tournament history at the place where Ben Hogan won four times – three L.A. Opens and a U.S. Open – from 1947 through 1950.
Movies (‘Pat and Mike’ with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, ‘The Caddy’ with Jerry Lewis and ‘Follow The Sun’ with Glenn Ford) have been filmed. It’s where Humphrey Bogart famously hung out under a sycamore tree near the 12th green, watching the L.A. Open.
Through the years, Hollywood A-listers from Bogart to Walt Disney to Dean Martin were members. These days, Larry David, Mark Wahlberg and Adam Sandler are on the roster. Given the reported $250,000 initiation fee (and that was a few years ago), it’s not a place for everyone.
O.J. Simpson was a member before his circumstances changed.
The late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, who could do with words what Adele can do with a song, put it simply years ago. “A shrine of the sport. A citadel of the game,” wrote Murray, who was also a Riviera member.
Last week, only three players in the top 20 in the world rankings showed up to play Pebble Beach. That’s more of a statement about the crowded PGA Tour schedule than about their fondness for what is likely one of the two most famous courses in the United States (the other one is in Augusta).
This week, 12 of the top 15 in the world are at Riviera. That’s not a coincidence.
“It’s the best course we play on tour by far,” Patrick Cantlay said.
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