Riviera’s Weaknesses

What good is a great golf course if we can't nitpick it to death?


Riviera Country Club is widely recognized as the best annual stop on the PGA Tour, but during this past week’s Genesis Invitational, the George Thomas-designed course came in for some criticism. The complaints from players and pundits centered on two acclaimed holes: the long par-3 fourth, which Ben Hogan allegedly adored; and the short par-4 10th, the most famous hole on the PGA Tour that doesn’t feature railroad ties or the Pacific Ocean.

Here are the basic critiques, along with some of my own thoughts:

The Redan with no run-out

With a gnarly bunker in front, a big kicker slope on the right, and a green running right to left and away from the player, No. 4 at Riviera was George Thomas’s version of a Redan template. Redans traditionally offer two options: feed the ball around the hazard and onto the green from the right, or go straight at the pin, directly over the trouble.

The problem with today’s fourth hole at Riviera is that the run-up play has become untrustworthy. The majority of tee shots that land more than five yards short of the green get hung up in the kikuyu fairway grass. Also, since the putting surface is maintained at speeds that George Thomas and Billy Bell couldn’t have imagined in 1927, most balls that land on the green roll off the other side. The result is that even the best golfers in the world hit the green only 15-20% of the time. This kind of brutality is not unacceptable in and of itself, but in this case it flattens the hole’s strategic character. Nearly everyone in the Genesis Invitational field aims at the same spot—the front-right portion of the green—and hopes for the best.

The design isn’t the issue. Aside from its (intended) strategic virtues, No. 4 has gorgeous shaping, with the green and two bunkers flowing off of the canyon wall. This is museum-worthy architecture, and I wouldn’t want to see it altered. But the combination of a sticky kikuyu approach and a slick poa putting surface has changed the hole for the worse. It’s an example of the importance of presentation in maintaining a course’s greatness.


The strategic short 4 with no strategy

In a No Laying Up blog post (!) on Saturday, Kevin Van Valkenburg summed up a discontent with Riviera’s 10th hole that has been building for the past several years. “It stinks,” Rory McIlroy said to KVV about the drivable par 4. “It absolutely stinks.” Well, then!

The typical critique is threefold:

1. Everyone at the Genesis Invitational tries to drive the green nowadays, so there’s no strategic variety;

2. The advantageous position is so small—essentially a ten-yard radius at the front-left edge of the green—that success is dependent on chance;

3. The green is so severely sloped and so viciously bunkered that players can make high numbers without hitting any terrible shots.

I don’t entirely disagree with those points. At the risk of repeating myself, issue number one is green speeds. If the 10th were more receptive to a wedge approach, I bet more players would consider laying up. As it is, though, holding the green even from 80 yards is a tall order. The pros figure they might as well try their luck with a fairway wood or driver off the tee.

But No. 10’s problems aren’t completely its fault. A major reason that every player in the Genesis field goes for the green is that every player in the Genesis field can reliably carry the fairway bunker on the left. In fact, most can cover those 270ish yards with a 3-wood. This wasn’t the case 25 years ago, when the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was right around—you guessed it—270 yards.

Where drives ended up on No. 10 at the 2023 Genesis Invitational

It’s also worth noting that pros aren’t the only golfers who play Riviera. I’m sure the 10th hole’s strategic options are still very much alive for members and guests.

Maybe the best defense of the 10th is that, in spite of the effects of 21st-century agronomic standards and equipment advances, it still makes for great TV. It generates a wide, unpredictable range of outcomes and a palpable sense of danger. Yesterday, leader Jon Rahm made a mess of the hole, finding trees, a run-off, and a bunker before holing a six-footer for bogey. Max Homa posted a birdie to draw even with Rahm and set up a back-nine duel.

There’s room for at least one hole on a golf course that brings a little chaos.


  • Andy gave a thorough account of No. 10’s history and current strengths and weaknesses in this five-year-old blog post.
  • Last year, Joseph explained how he learned to stop worrying and love the hole’s insanity.

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While Riviera has its shortcomings—I find the mow lines on 1 and the trees blocking the barranca on 13 more objectionable than anything on 4 or 10, frankly—it’s still one of the greatest courses in the world, a true mecca for golf-architecture nerds. Seeing it on TV every year is a treat.

Where do you stand on the debates around Riviera’s fourth and 10th holes? What, if anything, do you think could be done to improve them?