The Riviera Country Club – READ PART TWO HERE
THE TENTH HOLE: 315 YARDS – PAR 4
“I love option holes and this one has more than any short par 4 I know.”
– Jack Nicklaus
Look at any list of the greatest holes in golf and you’ll be sure to find the 10th at Riviera on every single one of them.
This may just be the best short par four in all of golf and it’s truly incredible due to the myriad options available to the player from the tee.
Do you take an iron or hybrid and challenge the cross bunkers in the middle of the fairway that require a shot of about 200 yards to clear? Choosing that option gives you a short pitch into a very shallow green that’s only about seven steps deep and will force the player to contend with a nasty bunker in front.
Or do you go left of the cross bunkers with the same club, leaving yourself a longer approach into the green but giving you the width of the green to hit into plus an open front so you can roll the ball up?
Or do you go for broke on the 300 yard hole and challenge the green from the tee with your driver?
Of course, I was salivating on the tee due to the fact the pin was front left. Green light territory!
Or so I thought…
“Here’s the club”, caddie Mike said, as he handed me the 4-iron.
“You don’t think driver is the play?”, I asked.
He smiled and said “Driver is NEVER the right play.”
Spoken like a man who knows his business. So I took the decidedly less glamourous route and went well left like I was told.
The problem was that my ball ended up barely going into the rough and it took us almost three minutes to find the ball, which sunk well down into the kikuyu. It took all of my strength to advance the ball 30 yards into the fairway and from there it took three more shots to get in the hole, making a bogey in the process.
The little hole got me!
It didn’t get my playing partner however. Pro hit nicely into the fairway and stopped his wedge approach about seven feet away. He rammed that home for his second birdie of the day to take a 2up lead in our little match.
THE ELEVENTH HOLE: 564 YARDS – PAR 5
“The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second, or his second or third on long holes; yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies, or fails under the test.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
This long par five is notable for the barranca which crosses the fairway about 360 yards away from the tee.
There is a bit of intimidation on the drive as well, with trees framing both sides of the fairway quite closely. I chose this time to block the ball well right off the tee. I had a bit of an opening but my caddie talked me into pitching back into the fairway to leave myself a 260 yard third shot into the green.
Pro was a bit upset with that choice and asked the caddie why he didn’t instruct me to go down #12, which he said was a makeable shot and one that would allow me to reach the green in regulation.
But I told him it was no big deal – I figured I could get to the green anyway.
That wasn’t the case but I made a good pass at my 2-iron rescue and came up just short. However, my chip shot landed just short in the fringe and of course, died right there, leaving me a twenty foot par putt from the collar. I’d miss and make bogey, matching the pro who missed a short putt for the first time all day.
THE TWELFTH HOLE: 460 YARDS – PAR 4
“Do not strive for length where you sacrifice character. Your yardage is the less valuable of the two considerations; but sufficient length, with type and strategy, is the ultimate.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
This hole has evolved quite a bit over the years. There used to be a huge cross bunker that ran about 100 yards from the tee but that was filled in sometime in the 1940’s.
The barranca is also much bigger now in front of the green than it used to be. The defining feature of the hole is a large sycamore tree that stands just to the left of the green. It is lovingly called ‘Bogey’s Tree’ for actor Humphrey Bogart, who legend has it used to watch the LA Open from right underneath it with a thermos full of Jack Daniels.
The hole is also notable for the homes that run along the hillside overlooking the fairway. Mel Brooks and Julie Andrews own homes right beside each other on top of the 12th fairway.
This hole was the start of a great stretch of golf from yours truly. I ripped a great drive right down the middle here and only had a 9-iron approach to a middle pin. I hit a nice shot right over the stick and barely missed my birdie, instead tapping in for par and tying the pro.
THE THIRTEENTH HOLE: 459 YARDS – PAR 4
“It is up to the architect to present us with a thinking contest as well as a physical one.”
– Ben Crenshaw in The Anatomy of a Golf Course by Tom Doak
What a great hole this is! Big dogleg left with the barranca running all the way down the left side and framed by trees right. The fairway also slopes toward the barranca, making things even tougher.
It’s a very difficult driving hole and that’s putting it lightly!
That’s the pro in the shot above snap hooking his tee ball into the barranca. It wasn’t exactly the mental picture I needed to see before stepping to the tee myself! With the caddie waiting up in the fairway, I nailed another great drive that drew around the corner right down the middle!
I only had 145 yards left to the hole and hit a little draw 8-iron into the wind that hit about two feet from the stick and rolled 10 feet past. I had the putt dead to rights but left it on the lip of the cup. Bah! Another par though, a great score on this hole and one that beat the pro, bringing me back to within one in our match!
THE FOURTEENTH HOLE: 176 YARDS – PAR 3
“One shotters are most important. In these holes one gets a keener interest on the tee shot than on others because it may be placed on the green by most men.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
This hole would likely qualify as the least intimidating on the entire golf course, even with a couple very deep bunkers in front of the green.
A very straightforward hole but one that can still jump up and grab you. I stepped up to the tee and thought there was nothing to this shot but ended up making a lazy swing and ended up right in the deep bunker front left.
I hit a decent blast shot out but still was 15 feet short of the cup and would two-putt that for bogey. Pro went into the right front bunker and also made bogey.
That was one opportunity missed.
THE FIFTEENTH HOLE: 443 YARDS – PAR 4
“The essence of golf strategy is diversity. Greens must be of great variety.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
This is another great par four. It’s a long dogleg right with a very large bunker on the inner elbow of the dogleg. It demands a cut shot off the tee and a precise approach to one of the more diabolical greens on the entire course. The back right portion of the green is pushed up well above the rest of the green, as you can tell in the picture above.
I hit a fantastic drive here, right down the middle once again. You can see my caddie checking out my yardage in the picture above. Unfortunately, I hit a very poor 6-iron approach left of the green, short-siding myself. My chip shot again landed in the collar and stopped dead in its tracks and I ended up having to make a six footer just to save bogey here.
Pro hit into the greenside bunker and also made bogey, keeping me within a hole in our match.
THE SIXTEENTH HOLE: 166 YARDS – PAR 3
“In golf construction, art and utility meet; both are absolutely vital; one is utterly ruined without the other.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
Who says you can’t have a short par three among the closing holes?
What a fantastic one shotter! Bunkers abound on this 166 yard par three and I believe the green here is the tiniest on the entire course, making a precise shot a must. Words can’t describe how gorgeous the bunkers are on this hole.
It’s interesting how things have changed here over time. Thomas built three different men’s tee decks to account for the changing seasons and the effect of the sunlight, with shorter tee decks left and right of the main deck.
Now, the hole is notable for the sycamore grove around the green and the need for stilts or supports for a few of the trees to keep them from falling over.
I hit an awesome 8-iron right at the stick and landed just 8 feet short. However, my putt must have broke about a foot and a half and I would barely miss once again, settling for par. Pro also hit a lovely shot in there and would also barely miss his birdie effort.
I was still one down with two to go!
THE SEVENTEENTH HOLE: 576 YARDS – PAR 5
“The strategy of golf is the thing which gives the short accurate player a chance with the longer hitter who cannot control his direction or distance.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
The finishing two holes at Riviera are brutes. First up is the uphill par five 17th, a true three shotter for all but the longest hitters in the world. Bunkers are well placed off the tee of this gentle dogleg left and really start to challenge the player on the layup second shot.
Again, the scale of the bunkering out here is incredible and you can probably understand by looking at the pictures below of both the layup area and greenside.
In these pictures, you really can see the brown grass around the edges of the bunkers. It’s a fescue grass that is trimmed down to the same size as the kikuyu and if the superintendent decided to make some changes, he could always let the edges grow to bring a little more definition to the bunkering.
This is a taxing hole both physically and mentally and I played it to near perfection. Drive right down the pipe; a 4-iron layup that left me about 100 yards for my third and a wedge that landed just left of the pin.
However, upon getting up to the green, I noticed my ball had spun back down the slope and I was left with about a 12 footer instead of a tap-in.
Pro was in with a par five so I really took a good look at this one from both behind the hole and behind the ball as I looked to tie the match.
“Birdie here and birdie 18 and you’ll break 80!”, he said.
“If I birdie 18”, I answered, “I’ll have a smile on my face for weeks!”
Obviously looking ahead instead of concentrating on the task at hand, I left the putt right on the lip for the upteenth time, making par.
THE EIGHTEENTH HOLE: 451 YARDS – PAR 4
“The last three holes should be of exceptional character, and the last hole should, undoubtedly, be a fine two shotter.”
– George C. Thomas, Jr.
The 18th at Riviera is one of the elite closing holes in all of golf, a very demanding uphill 451 yarder with a green set in a natural amphitheater below the grand clubhouse.
Just an incredible setting.
You can’t really see from the picture just how elevated the fairway is from the teeing ground. You REALLY have to connect here to get the ball over the knob into the middle of the fairway.
I’d love to tell you I nailed my tee shot right down the pipe then heroically hit a great long iron stiff beside the flag, just like in the picture below.
Well I did but unfortunately, it was my SECOND BALL off the tee. My real ball was weakly pushed into the eucalyptus trees right of the fairway.
“There’s no way I’m letting you finish off on that note”, the pro said.
“Hit another one!”
So I played two balls on the famous 18th, hitting a 4-iron second from the middle of the fairway onto the green and two putting with the second ball, which of course doesn’t count.
The ball that counted was in the trees and I hit a great punch out to exactly 80 yards, with the pin cut back right. I don’t know if I was pumped up (probably) or if it was a poor yardage (I doubt it) but I spanked my lob wedge over the green onto the hillside, leaving an almost impossible chip to the pin cut tight to the back. I’d run that by ten feet and miss my bogey putt, making a VERY disappointing double to shoot 83 and lose my match 2 down.
No matter. You still couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as the round came to a close.
What a golf course and what an experience! We walked the whole way and I can tell you I was able to soak up everything as the morning passed, never feeling rushed.
Yet I looked at the clock when we got to the clubhouse and noticed the time…
We played 18 holes in 3 hours and 5 minutes! Now THAT is golf the way it is meant to be played!
I can’t speak highly enough about my experience at Riviera and my thoughts about this great George Thomas Jr. design. It goes without saying that I used every club in my bag out here. You are forced to shape all of your shots if you want to get closer to the pins and in some cases, you are forced to shape the ball two different ways ON THE SAME HOLE.
It may be a tough test for the lower handicappers from the back tee deck but it’s still a gorgeous walk in the park for higher handicappers. You can’t necessarily run the ball in on the kikuyu but you still have openings on most holes to avoid bunkers and other hazards. This is a fair design and if you are hitting the ball with precision, you can score out here. I figure the kikuyu cost me three shots so I would have been right on 80 in my first attempt. The pro told me that you need about three rounds or so to learn some of the subtleties around the greens. I’d have to agree. This course isn’t relentless like Princeville – it’s truly fun to play and you CAN score out here.
No two hole are even remotely alike out here. There are an equal amount of holes that dogleg left versus holes that dogleg right. He uses the flow of the land to dictate play and his associate Billy Bell’s bunkering is absolutely spectacular. You can go right down the list from one to eighteen – Thomas’ routing is just incredible and it’s a testament to his genius that he was able to take a basically flat site and make it into the strategic wonder that it is today. This is a course that all aspiring architects should study.
The course is very memorable due to the previously stated fact that no two holes are alike. It may not come across as well on television during the Nissan Open but I’m here to tell you that once you play this track, you will be able to describe, in detail, every nuance of this course from top to bottom. The bunkers are easily the prettiest and most predominant feature.
Conditioning was uniformly above average. I was amazed at how the ball stood up in the fairways on the kikuyu grass, almost like it was on a tee. Bunkers were in immaculate condition and the greens rolled pretty true but a bit slower than I expected. Two of the greens were aerated but both rolled fine.
Topping it off, Riviera is a wonderful walking golf course. It doesn’t get a tremendous amount of weekday play, from what the pro indicated and it really felt at times like we were the only group out there. I don’t remember enjoying myself on a golf course more than the night I walked around, camera in hand, the night before I played. Pure bliss. And only three hours and five minutes to play 18 holes? Awesome!
At the time of this writing, I can honestly say this is the best golf course I have ever played, bar none. I can’t speak more highly of my Riviera experience and staying onsite made the trip even sweeter. It’s just that good and that’s to say nothing about the people I met at the club, who treated me like a member the entire time I was there. If you EVER get the chance to play this great course, you owe it to yourself to stay at least one night at the club.
You’ll thank me later!
If you want to learn more about Riviera, its designer and its great history, I implore you to check out Geoff Shackleford’s wonderful book “The Riviera Country Club – A Definitive History”.
I purchased it at the club while I was there and it truly is a great read.
I can only sum up my experience by saying the three nights spent at Riviera and my day on the course will be memories I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.