FROM THE RIVIERA COURSE GUIDE –
Riviera Country Club’s legendary 18 holes represents the essence of what the game of golf is all about; a seamless blend of natural and man-made beauty and shot-making challenges that are at once fair and inspiring. No two golf holes at Riviera are alike, with each hole standing as a design gem unique to all of golf course architecture. It is no wonder that since it opened for play on June 24th 1927, both golf’s elite players and writers continue to unanimously group this George C. Thomas, Jr. designed classic amongst the best golf courses in all the world.
Recently modified to restore Thomas’ original intent, Riviera’s greatest virtue continues to be its fairness. With every shot clearly laid out before competitive and recreational players alike, the course likewise yields the satisfaction of experiencing the best the game of golf has to offer equally to one and all.
I actually slept decently all things considered the night before playing Riviera. I had an 8:30am tee time and set the alarm for 7am, which gave me plenty of time to get showered, shine my shoes, iron my slacks and even hit some balls before the round.
It was a dreary, overcast morning and actually quite cool, the first dud of a morning weather-wise since we hit the west coast. No matter – there was NOTHING that was going to keep me from playing on this day!
I signed off on the green fee in the pro shop and was told that I’d be playing with Mike, one of the assistant pros at Riviera. I was asked if I wanted a cart for the round.
Hell no. I’m going to walk, thank you very much!
He told me Mike was going to meet me outside in just a second and that my caddie would join me on the first tee after I hit some balls and stroked some putts.
So I headed to the practice green to get a couple putts in but I ran into Mike on the way there. He introduced himself and after some small talk, we piled into a cart and headed to the range, which is located between the second and tenth holes.
It’s a smallish range but setup quite nicely, with multiple targets all over the range and a neat little shack where you can pick up your balls, grab a snack or just relax and watch others practice. Very cool.
I got the feeling Mike was sizing me up a bit while I hit balls, as was the head pro, who was giving a lesson on the other side of the range. Funny enough, I wasn’t nervous at all and was basically striping every shot.
Would the swing hold up was the question…
We headed back up and I hit a couple quick putts before getting whisked to the first tee 20 minutes early. I finally got to meet my caddie, another Mike, and I’ll tell you something…
Look up the word caddie in the dictionary and I’d bet the accompanying picture looked just like this:
Just perfect! Mike has looped for 17 years at Riviera, with only one year off in between. He spent 2006 at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort if you can believe it.
Boy, this guy sure knows how to pick the good ones! Bandon is right near the top of my vacation wish list…one day I’ll get there!
Funny enough, Mike told me “one year was good enough out there” and while he expressed appreciation for the architecture of the courses on the site, he wasn’t as complimentary of the players he looped for.
I didn’t press him for details.
But enough about Bandon! I’m playing Riviera for goodness sakes!
THE FIRST HOLE: 503 YARDS – PAR 5
“Such a hole gives the long man a chance to get near the green in two, with the possibility of reaching it, and the short man can always attain the distance with three reasonable strokes.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
The starter came over and introduced himself while asking where I was from and how to pronounce my last name. Man, everyone is so friendly here!
But there was method to his madness…
He stepped to the side and said, “On the tee, from St. Catharines, Canada…Matt Bosela.”
I just about wet myself!
The first tee is two steps from the clubhouse and there were a few people mingling about but it wasn’t exactly packed. We were playing the back deck and from there it’s a straightaway short par five off an elevated tee.
I was just hoping for solid contact.
I took a couple quick practice swings, took a deep breath and stepped up to the ball. I then took one look down the fairway and pulled the trigger.
I smashed it center cut! Whew!
Mike the caddie smiled and gave me a ‘thumbs up’ as Mike the pro teed up and also hit it down the middle.
We were off!
The dreaded barranca wouldn’t be in play for me here, as I only had 218 to the flag for my second shot according to my caddie. I told him I wanted to play a draw from the right edge of the green to the pin, which was cut in the middle of the green behind the bunker.
“Perfect”, he said.
I hit a 4-iron right on my intended line but it was here that I got my first taste of what kikuyu grass does to a golf ball.
It just swallows it whole!
Well, not really but I found out right away that you get absolutely no bounce or roll around the greens. I had a simple pitch shot to the flag and my caddie reminded me to “land the ball on the green…if you land it short in the fringe, it will just die there.”
I hit a decent shot to about 8 feet and barely missed the putt, tapping in for my par five. Pro matched me and we were tied through one.
THE SECOND HOLE: 463 YARDS – PAR 4
“If possible, it is well to have the second hole come back to the club, so that tie matches may for the first three holes never be over the distance of one fairway from home. Also, if one is late in arriving, one may pick up friends at the third tee.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
Long par four is next as we head back to the clubhouse. I stroked a decent drive down the left side but ended up in the rough. Thankfully, I had a ridiculously good lie and had the EXACT same yardage that I had on the first hole: 218 yards.
For whatever reason, I picked a 4-iron again, likely due to the fact I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my rescue club at the time. Of course, 218 yards uphill and into a slight breeze meant I ended up short. But I missed the mammoth bunker that fronts the green and had another easy pitch shot to the pin that was cut near the front of the green.
Unfortunately, I got a bit quick with it and my ball rolled 15 feet past. My first putt was right on line but a bit too frisky, ending up about four feet by. I’d miss the comebacker for an ugly double bogey six. Pro made a bomb from 30 feet to save an unlikely bogey after he got into trouble off the tee, so he’s one up in our straight up match.
THE THIRD HOLE: 434 YARDS – PAR 4
“The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
This is an interesting hole. It’s a relatively straightaway par four with a center line cross bunker about 180 yards off the tee. However, the hillside to the right of the fairway offers a little visual deception and the way the bunker is angled gives the player the impression that the hole is a dogleg right.
I ended up cutting my drive slightly and while I thought I was in good shape, my caddie said it would be a tough shot into the green from there. Hmm.
By playing down the right, I brought the front bunker into play and I learned my second lesson about playing Riviera: placement off the tee is of paramount importance.
I hit a bit of a double-cross with my 9-iron approach and ended up in the rough to the left of the green. It wasn’t an overly difficult chip shot but the kikuyu got the best of me for the first time on the day. I hit what normally would be a great shot in Canada, a little chip into the collar, but it just died right on impact, even though it was shortly-trimmed fringe.
From there, I hit another horrible putt way past the hole and again missed the comebacker, making my second double in a row. At this point, I really haven’t made a poor swing but I’m four over through three. Pro made another nice up and down for par and was two up.
THE FOURTH HOLE: 236 YARDS – PAR 3
“The greatest par-3 hole in America.”
– Ben Hogan
This hole is an absolute animal. 236 yards into the breeze with bunkers surrounding the entire front of the green.
In the old days, players were able to play to the right and get the old ‘member’s bounce’ back toward the green. However, that strategy became obsolete with the planting of the kikuyu grass, which just doesn’t allow for any release off the hillside.
So that meant I’d have to hit the ball over those bunkers and try to softly land it on the putting surface.
I’d have to get over my fear of the hybrid club, something this shot absolutely demanded. I pulled my 3-iron rescue from the bag and made a perfect pass at the ball.
I looked up and watched it soar right at the flagstick, hit about five feet short of the pin and roll about 15 feet past. Awesome!
I hit a great putt and left it right on the bloody lip, tapping in for a VERY satisfying par. Pro made an incredible up and down here after snapping his tee shot way left. He pitched to about 15 feet and made it, something that was becoming quite common through the early goings.
THE FIFTH HOLE: 434 YARDS – PAR 4
“Combinations of the direction of wind and the slope of the ground provide a great diversity of shots and add tremendous interest to the play of the holes.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
What a great golf hole! A tree-lined dogleg left with out of bounds to the right, helped somewhat by the fact that the fairway slopes severely from the right to left as well. From there, you have a mid-to-short iron shot downhill over a huge grassy knoll and over the barranca to a green that is pitched in similar fashion to the fairway: right to left.
The visual deception at play here is incredible. You really have to trust your swing on the approach, playing from the sidehill lie to a green that is running away from you to the left.
I hit my drive thin to the right but got the generous hop back into the fairway. From there, I had 186 yards into the wind and decided on the 6-iron. I aimed at the right side of the green and hit a draw that started off exactly like I wanted it.
It moved a bit more than I planned but ended up landing softly on the green and rolling just into the fringe, about 15 feet away.
I’ll take it!
Pro just bombed his drive here right to the end of the fairway, perilously close to the barranca. He knocked his approach stiff to four feet, hitting only his second green in regulation.
The caddie had been reading my putts for me but I kept my normal routine of reading them myself, only to find that his reads were perfect. So when he told me “one cup left”, I just walked up to the ball and stroked it right into the hole for a birdie three.
Funny moment as he extended his hand and I slapped it, thinking he wanted a high five.
Turns out he just wanted to clean my ball. Ha!
Pro wasn’t frazzled by my make, as he calmly stepped up and knocked his home as well. Nice!
THE SIXTH HOLE: 199 YARDS – PAR 3
“When you play a course and remember each hole, it has individuality and change. If your mind cannot recall the exact sequence of the holes, that course lacks the great assets of originality and diversity.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
This is one of the most famous par threes in all of golf, notable mostly for the bunker in the middle of the green.
In my opinion, it’s the bunker in FRONT of the green that’s most memorable – first of all, the scale of the bunkers at Riviera is beyond description. But you get an idea of what they’re about in the picture below.
The beauty of this bunker is the fact that it’s set well in front of the green, something that you just can’t comprehend from the tee on first inspection. You get a better idea once you reach the green that there is more room than you think. However, you then have to worry about the dreaded bunker on the green.
Just a wonderful hole with pin positions galore! I hit a solid six iron just left of the green, chipped on to about four feet and made the putt for a very good par. Pro ended up making bogey so I was back to only one down.
THE SEVENTH HOLE: 408 YARDS – PAR 4
“Wise is the man who knows how to play each hole as he should play it, and skillful the golfer who can place his shots after he knows where they should go. Such a player is exceedingly hard to defeat on a course with proper strategy.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
I felt a little lost at Riviera for the first time once we got to the 7th tee. It’s a long walk back to the end of the property behind the 6th green to get to the back deck so my caddie gave me my driver and walked up the fairway to watch our drives.
The hole looked much shorter than it’s 408 yards and I questioned whether driver was the right choice. Hitting first didn’t help matters.
I ended up making a wishy washy, anti-left swing to avoid the huge bunkers and hit it into the barranca right of the fairway. Pro followed suit, hitting it into the exact same spot as me. You can see why I avoided going left by looking at the picture below.
Luckily enough, my caddie found my ball and I actually had a relatively decent lie in the hazard. However, there was a tree obscuring my approach so I’d have to aim left of the green. I hit a great shot but it ended up squirting out a bit further right than I wanted, ending up in a huge trap about 40 yards short of the green.
My caddie let out a bit of a groan after that one…he wanted me to play WELL out to the left and I disobeyed him. Ha!
I hit a nice long bunker shot but got unlucky when my ball didn’t spin off the large slope near the back of the green, leaving me with a treacherous downhill 15 footer for par. Three putts later and I’m in with my third double of the day.
Pro couldn’t find his original ball and did well to make a double, matching my score on the hole.
THE EIGHTH HOLE: 433 YARDS – PAR 4
“Holes with double or triple, or even more fairways or landing places present unlimited possibilities to our golf course development. Such are feasible, but can only be considered where each hole is separate and apart from the rest of the course.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
Options upon options abound on this interesting hole that has been restored to its former glory. Floods in the 1930’s washed out the double fairway but it was brought back a few years ago and once again gives the player many different choices from the tee.
Higher handicappers can hit to the left fairway and keep it short of the bunker. However they will have a very difficult second shot. Better players will likely aim right to the larger, more accessible fairway (shown above) but will be forced to carry a mid-to-short iron over the barranca to reach a green that is pitched away from them.
Big hitters have a chance to blow a shot past the trees that separate the two fairways and give themselves a wedge approach with no forced carry, as you can see above.
However, from the back tees, I see no reason why anyone would WANT to test the left side: there just doesn’t seem to be enough ‘reward’ for the risk involved. I asked the pro what his thoughts were and he said that when he plays with members from the middle tees, he goes to the left fairway more often than not. However, he agreed that there wasn’t much sense going left from the tips and the pros evidently feel the same way, as they almost all went down the right side during the 2007 Nissan Open.
I drove perfectly down the right fairway and had only 175 yards into the green. Playing downwind, that meant a 7-iron and I hit it just left of the green. My chip shot was decent but I would miss the putt and make bogey. Pro continued to amaze with his short game and made another lengthy putt to save a par and go two up once again.
THE NINTH HOLE: 458 YARDS – PAR 4
“On a trap which I recently constructed, one player objected to it because he said: ‘If I make a bad drive, I cannot get on the green on my second shot.’ When everybody roared with laughter, it was realized that this very feature was the one which made the trap necessary and valuable.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
The last hole on the outgoing side is a very strong uphill par four that brings you back to the clubhouse. The positioning of the bunkers is particularly brilliant and deception is key once again.
It looks as if the left and right fairway bunkers are equal distances from the tee but that isn’t the case. The ‘fade’ bunker on the right is about 30 yards behind the ‘draw’ bunker on the left, causing fits for players regardless of the way they shape their shots.
If you successfully navigate the tee shot, you still have an uphill second to a green with some heavy undulations and one that is particularly well protected by traps.
I hit likely my best drive of the day here right down the pipe and only had an 8-iron approach to a tough front right pin placement. I wanted to be conservative and hit the middle of the green but I pushed my shot ever so slightly and it went right at the pin, stopping ten feet short. I hit a horrible putt here but tapped in for my par and a front nine of 41 (+6), not bad considering the three doubles.
Pro got into some trouble off the tee and made bogey so I was back to one down as we approached the back nine.
The Riviera Country Club – READ PART THREE HERE